Art In Manhattan, 2017- And Then There Were Five

It was a year of discovery. A year where I discovered some great Artists I previously hadn’t known, finally caught up with some I knew about but hadn’t gotten to see much of their work, and got lost exploring some remarkable Retrospectives- for Raymond Pettibon and Robert Rauschenberg, both accompanied by memorable satellite shows. Most of these are represented in my monthly NoteWorthy Show selections throughout the year. But? There was more! So, I’m going to take this moment to pause and look back at the revelations of 2017, look at some memorable shows I didn’t write about at the time, and finally, highlight a pair of men who, I feel, had an exceptional 2017 in Manhattan Art.

No doubt about it- the biggest discovery this year was a long overdue deep dive into the world of Contemporary Photography. From seeing well over 100 Photography shows, to spending five long days at “AIPAD: The Photography Show” (with well over 200 galleries from all over the world showing work), to going through hundreds of PhotoBooks, and meeting many Photographers, legendary, famous, or not quite yet, along with the staffs of two of the world’s leading Photography organizations- Aperture and Magnum, both celebrating major anniversaries this year. Rarely did a week pass when Photography wasn’t in the the picture. Of course, in a world were there are now more cameras than people it’s impossible to get to see everyone who’s doing great work. As happens each year, NO matter WHAT I do to prevent it, this year too, there were shows I didn’t find out about until they closed. UGGGH!!!! Along the way, there were quite a few revelations, and a good many other things solidified…at least for the moment.

First, the revelations. In Photography, particularly by those younger than 50 (I say 50 because I seem to know/have heard of many of those over) and unknown to me, Gregory Halpern was the biggest revelation I had this year. His book “Zzyzx” won the prestigious Aperture Best Book Award for 2016, but I didn’t know that when I discovered his work at Aperture’s booth at AIPAD. I had never heard of him.

Gregory Halpern, “Untitled,” 2016, from his “Buffalo” series. Click any Photo for full size.

The work, “Untitled,” was a Photograph Aperture had run in the Spring, 2017 issues of it’s excellent quarterly magazine, in a pictorial by Mr. Halpern, titled “Buffalo.” I didn’t know that then, either. I simply saw the work, and then couldn’t get it out of my mind. It now hangs a few feet away. Out of everything I saw at AIPAD, particularly by those younger than 50 and unknown to me, this work grabbed me and didn’t let go. I went home that night with one thought on my mind- “WHO is Gregory Halpern?” After researching him most of the night, (including finding his incredibly honest and insightful answer to one very important question), serendipitously, I got to meet him the next day, and spoke to him about his book. It turned out to be a classic case where some things are better left unexamined. Gregory was so forthcoming in his answers about specific images I came too close for comfort to losing some of their mystery.

Gregory Halpern standing next “Untitled,” at Aperture’s Booth at AIPAD, March 31st.

In addition to being, in my eyes, one of the most talented Photographers of his generation, he is, also, one of it’s best writers. He’s the co-author of one of the most popular and respected Photography Manuals of 2017, “The Photographer’s Playbook,” and his occasionally published articles always enlighten and leave me wanting more. A Harvard grad, he’s now a professor in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology for some very lucky students. As if all of that isn’t enough, his wife, Ahndraya Parlato is, also, one of the revelations of the year as a Photographer. Her Photographs “glow”- in one way or another. Her most recent book, “A Spectacle and Nothing Strange,” is ethereal…mesmerizing…magical.

Leaving aside age or era, the work of Fred Herzog was, also, unknown to me. Early pioneers of color Photography have taken decades coming to the attention they deserve, such was the disdain color held among the Photographic cognoscenti for color Photography. With the publication of “Fred Herzog: Modern Color,” in February, 2017, an Artist who was fairly well-known, and appreciated, in his native Canada finally began becoming wider known in the USA. His work was memorably shown by Equinox Gallery of Vancouver at AIPAD this spring, where, I felt, it stood out.

Fred Herzog, “Main Barber,” 1968, seen at Equinox Gallery’s AIPAD booth.

Fred Herzog considers Saul Leiter THE master of early color Photography, and even with a giant like William Eggleston to consider (who’s 1976 MoMA show, “Photographs by William Eggleston,” which can be “visited” here, is widely credited with making color Photography “acceptable” in the world of “Fine Art”), it’s hard to argue with him. No Photographer new to me, regardless of age or period, had a bigger impact on me this year than Saul Leiter.

Saul Leiter, “Through Boards,” Circa 1957. This image appears (cropped) on the cover of the now classic book, “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” 2006, which launched the “Saul Leiter Renaissance.” It’s, perhaps, my very favorite Photobook. Sadly, now out of print, it would take real diligence to find a very good copy for less than $100. But, there are many worse uses of time. Photo by the Saul Leiter Foundation.

It took until 2006 for Saul Leiter to be recognized- FIFTY EIGHT years after he started taking color photographs. As with William Eggleston, Mr. Leiter was, also, a devoted Painter. I can see it in both of their work, and I believe it’s part of the reason their work speaks to me, perhaps, more than the work of any other Photographer of any period. It was his friend, no less than the great Artist Richard Pousette-Dart (who’s also an under appreciated Photographer), to encouraged him to pursue Photography.

“Walk with Soames,” 1958, This was 20 YEARS before William Eggleston’s ground breaking MoMA show “legitimized” color Photography in the Art world! Photo by Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Mr. Leiter saw and used color in his Photography in ways no one else has, achieving effects that today’s finest digital manipulators can only dream of. As very good as his Black & White work is, like Turner or Van Gogh, Saul Leiter was a true Poet of color, perhaps the greatest Master of Color in Photography, though it’s, of course, impossible and pointless to qualitatively compare.

“T,” Circa 1950(!).Photo by the Saul Leiter Foundation. Daring. Gorgeous.

Saul Leiter didn’t need Photoshop to get his results. He just stood there with his camera, and click…Art.

A number of established Photographers had terrific shows in NYC in 2017 that I didn’t get to write about here. Among them are Mark Steinmetz, Mike Mandel, Raghubir Singh (though marked by controversy), Richard Avedon, Herman Leonard, Michael Kenna, and Edward Burtynsky. But, I’m going to address one I simply can’t let pass, because I continue to think about it.

Richard Misrach’s Photo, “Effigy #3, near Jacumba, California,” 2009, Pigment print mounted to Dibond, right rear, with Guillermo Galindo’s Musical Instrumet/Sculpure “Effigy,” 2014, center2014. Barely visible are two strings between the forearms. The grey rectangle on the lower left side of the pedestal is where a speaker is mounted.

“Richard Misrach: Border Cantos,” (at Pace, 510 West 25th Street), was an utterly remarkable and serendipitous collaboration between renowned Photographer Richard Misrach & Composer/Sculptor Guillermo Galindo on the subject of our southern border, those protecting it, and those trying to cross it. To accompany Mr. Misrach’s large, atmospheric Photographs, Mr. Galindo created a whole orchestra of Musical Instruments out of objects found along the border, and proceeded to compose and record a 4 hour score that was looped in the show’s back room to meditative effect, ingeniously installed so that the music being played was coming from speakers mounted inside the display of the specific instruments that were playing at any given moment. (The Artists have an excellent website for this show where you can, also, hear these remarkable instruments.)

Instruments, like this. Guillermo Galindo, “Tortillafono/Wall Vibraphone,” 2014, Metal. The discarded metal cap of an electrical box from the failed SBInet (Secure Border Initiative) surveillance program was turned into a mallet and string instrument sits in front of Richard Misrach’s “Artifacts fround from California to Texas between 2013 and 2015,” 2013-5, 86 x 57 inches, Pigment prints mounted to Dibond. Photos of items found along the border.

And this- Guillermo Galindo, “Teclata,” His description- “On this keyboard, empty cans, bottles, and a plastic cup act as piano strings. The surface of the instrument is decorated with Border Patrol ammunition boxes.”

The surround sound effect was like sitting in the middle of a small chamber music group. The instruments, themselves, were beautiful as sculpture, and the music, which sounded to me like a cross between Harry Partch (who, also, made his own instruments) and John Cage, on instruments that looked like Rauschenbergs, had me asking if it had been released on CD. Why not?

Richard Misrach, “Playas de Tijuana #1, San Diego,” 2013, Pigment print mounted to Dibond, 42 x 160 inches.

Mr. Misrach, who has spent forty years working in the American Desert on his renown “Desert Cantos” project, showed a remarkable selection of images taken since 2004, but more intensely since 2009 (the collaboration with Mr. Galindo dates back to 2012), that told the story in slices. The effect of the music, the images and the sculptures (musical and non) was hypnotic, and ultimately meditative on the situation, the people protecting the border, and the refugees, while at the same time, even for those directly untouched by this story, the show spoke to a larger sense of walls, borders and refugees, and resilience. The Artists found, or created, beauty in this situation, reflecting the very perseverance that is at the essence of survival.

Richard Misrach, “Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona,” 2014, 68 x 84 inches, Pigment print mounted to Dibond

On the Painting & Drawing front, the most important Painting/Drawing gallery show I haven’t addressed was Kara Walker (at Sikkema Jenkins and Co.). Before it opened the buildup was downright intense. First, these posters began appearing, which certainly raised eyebrows until you notice (along the lower left side) that the text was written by the Artist. The show was also featured in a cover article in one of the last print issues of the Village Voice. I can’t remember the last time an Art show made the Voice’s cover, but this was the last time one did.

 Kara Walker sounds a bit weary in the poster, and particularly in the “Artist’s Statement” that appears on the show’s page on the Sikkema website.

“Dredging the Quagmire (Bottomless Pit),” 2017 Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen, 18 feet long, seen in the show’s first room. A “bottomless quagmire” is what the history of and current state of race and gender relations does feel like at this moment in time.

In the lower right side, this almost submerged head seemed to echo Ms. Walker’s weariness in her Artist’s Statement. “But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.'”

After all the anticipation and buildup, at the packed opening, Ms. Walker, herself, was only to be seen for a little while, at least while I was there.

Kara Walker at the opening, September 7, 2017, with part of  “U.S.A. Idioms,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, almost 15 by 12 feet, in the background.

While she continues to create her signature Silhouettes, showing a gorgeous 2017 work titled “Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” that’s almost 18 1/2 feet long, the bulk of the show consists on her ink and collage works, that have increasingly come to the forefront of her shows as time has gone on, most recently in her Cleveland Museum show, “The Ecstasy of St. Kara,” 2016, and at MoMA’s “Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection,” which closed on July 30, 2017, where her “40 Acres of Mules,” a Charcoal Drawing on 3 sheets totaling almost 18 feet long that was acquired by the Museum the year before, was on view in what was something of a one-work preview for her Sikkema show.

“Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something),” 2017, Cut paper on canvas. For me, one thing Ms. Walker’s Silhouettes all seem to ask is “Why do you see, what you see?”

Whereas it’s hard for me to imagine the care, patience and deliberation it must take for Ms. Walker to create one of her silhouettes, her Drawing & Collages look like they are done in bursts of raw energy and passion. At times the images approach the quality of a caricature of an event. No matter the differences in creation, when you see her Silhouettes and Drawings side by side they’re unmistakably by the same Artist.

While the Silhouettes, mostly, seem to leave quite a bit to the imagination, including the race of each character, her Drawings & Collages do not, especially when it comes to violence. Nothing is held back, hinted at or hidden. In the Drawings and collages, she has taken away the curtain inherent in Silhouettes in depicting racism and gender crimes. We see the faces, skin color, eyes, and what each one is involved in doing.  You can choose to look away, but otherwise, it’s pretty hard to “miss” what’s going on. The results are shocking, though they have precedent going back to Goya’s “Los Caprichos,” and “The Disasters of War,” and Daumier through Warhol, as well as in the work of Photojournalists and “Conflict Photographers” from all over the world. In Kara Walker’s work, though, the time is centered between 1788, when slavery was legalized in the US, through post Civil War “Reconstruction.”  Where the Silhouettes present a shadow of the figure, and the actions, the Drawings shine direct light. In fact, there are almost no shadows in her drawings- there’s no where for the perpetrators to hide.

“The Pool Party of Sardanapalus (after Delacroix, Kienholz,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, Almost 12 feet long.

Eugene Delacroix, “The Death of Sardanapalus,” 1844, Oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. Kara Walker is, also, an astute student of Art History. In her work, Sardanapalus lies horizontally near the upper left corner, apparently, taking no interest in the orgy of death going on, as he does, lying arm on elbow on a huge red bed in Delacroix’. Her Ed Kienholz reference is a bit harder to track down, but it might be this one.

In “Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017, the ground is, also, gone. The figures hang in the space of the paper, though some sense of perspective remains- as you get closer to the top of the sheet, they get smaller.

“Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017, Sumi ink and collage on paper, 140 x 196 inches.

In this work, Ms. Walker’s figures cut across time, with some appearing to be contemporary. To the right of center, a figure “rocks the mic.” In the lower center is a figure that appears to be a modern riot trooper, in a helmet with face shield and body armor. He appears to have clubs in each hand. Right next to his left hand is what appears to be a black head, in a hoodie, on a platter, being carried by a woman, who looks away, while others nearby watch, some with shock on their face, some pointing to the scene. Just behind them, an extended arm holds and American flag, while above them a figure gives a Nazi salute with one hand while holding a Rebel flag with the other. Up top, a lynched figure hangs from a tree branch while women on either side of him perform acrobatics, with Klansmen standing next to them. In front of that naked black women are attacked by a group of men, while, again, others see what is going on. In the center of the work, the decapitated hoodied head looks straight across at a Civil War soldier pointing a gun at him, across time. Is this 1863? Or 2016?

“Storm Ryder (You Must Hate Black People as Much as You Hate Yourself),” 2017, Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen.

The primacy of Drawing in her work was reinforced with the recent release of one of Ms Walker’s Sketchbooks from 1999, when the Artist was 29, as a book appropriately titled, “MCMXCIX.” It contains Drawings that, in style and subject, visitors to the Sikkema show will immediatley recognize. Interestingly, as Raymond Pettibon does in his shows (the latest concluding on June 24th, shortly before Ms. Walker’s opened), she prefers her larger works be tacked to the walls.

“Future Looks Bright,” 2017, Oil stick and Sumi ink on paper collaged on linen.

Kara Walker may be growing tired of being a “role model,” of being “a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche,” (as she says in her Artist’s Statement referenced above). Of course, I can’t imagine being Kara Walker, but I can understand that it gets to be “too much.” I’m not sure, however, what her other choice is. I mean, I’m sure she COULD do something else if she REALLY wanted to. After seeing all the work and passion she put into this show? I guess I’m just not convinced that she really DOES want to do something else. Yet.

Finally…Looking back on 2017… Last year I wrote that I felt Sheena Wagstaff had the best year in NYC Art. She’s had a very good 2017, too. But, this year, I think that The New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni & Gary Carrion-Murayari. had special years, highlighted by the truly exemplary, and revolutionary, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” retrospective, which they then remounted simultaneously in Maastricht and Moscow. I feel it was “revolutionary” because totaling an unheard of 800 works, including brand new works created by the Artist for this show (some on the very walls of the New Museum), they gave an exhaustive look at Pettibon’s career, yet the show never slowed, never failed to keep and even raise interest. It even included work Pettibon did as a small child that he has now ammended in his own, unique style. Word has recently come that Gary Carrion-Murayari, who kindly answered my questions on the Pettibon Moscow show he co-curated, has also been named as a co-curator for the New Museum’s 2018 Triennial, so he could be ready to have another “big” year. Stay tuned!

The end result is that Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and the New Museum have served to put the “Big Four”1 Manhattan Museums on notice that, on their 40th anniversary, we are going to have to get used to saying the “Big Five.”

———————————–
A Special “Thank You!” to all the Artists who gave me their time and shared their thoughts with me in 2017, and to David White & Gina Guy of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Gary Carrion-Murayari and Paul Jackson of the New Museum.
“Thank you!” to the Hattan Group and Kitty for research assistance, and to The Strand Bookstore for being open until 10:30pm seven nights a week. R.I.P. Owner, Fred Bass this week.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Heroic Elegy, Op. 36,” (1918), by Ernest Farrar, in honor of the 100th Anniversary of WW1, which was featured in another memorable show, “World War 1 & The Visual Arts” at The Met this year, as a way of honoring it, and all the Artists, and Musicians, lost during it. Shortly after “Heroic Elegy’s” premiere, Second Lieutenant Farrar was ordered to the Western Front. Two days after he arrived there, he was killed at the Battle of Epehy. He was 33. I first heard it while I was driving in Florida on September 11, 2002. The classical station there played it in honor of the first anniversary of 9/11. So taken with it was I that I pulled over and listened to it with my eyes closed, then immediately set about researching it’s composer. Though he wrote other fine works, “Heroic Elegy,” is special. It’s lightning in an 8 minute bottle. As beautiful as it is, there’s a quality, a confidence, in it that seems to promise so much more to come that he, tragically, never got the chance to give us, like the other Artists & Musicians lost far too early in this most senseless of wars.

On The Fence, #17, The Good Riddance” Edition.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. With all due respect to The Frick Collection, who the powers that be that came up with “the Big Four” left out.

Ellen Harvey’s Global Beautification Project

A few weeks back, I walked across West 22nd Street after visiting Gary Hume’s show, “Mum” at Matthew Marks, lost in the whirlwind of emotions, past and present, it elicited, barely cognizant of the traffic, weather, or time. Luckily, Thanksgiving week in NYC tends to be on the quiet side. As I crossed the street, bright lights, like those seen in a carnival, beckoned from inside the front window of Danese/Corey Gallery. Reaching the sidewalk, I could see the lights made a sign that was attached to the frame of a wooden shack. They read “ARCADIA.”

The view from the sidewalk outside Danese/Corey. Click any Photo for full size.

Hmmm…”Arcadia.” A word that evokes simple pleasures. In need of some cheer, I stepped inside. While I can’t say I found “cheer,” I found Art.

Installation view from inside the “shack.” An extraordinarily imaginative vision, stunningly well realized.

The show was “Ellen Harvey: Nostalgia.” Inside the wooden framed shack, the carnival-like atmosphere of the sign outside quickly faded into darkness, pierced with lines of white light. Looking closer, the lines turned out to be etched on mirrors lit from the back. The light they emitted was reflected back by more back lit mirrors on the opposite side of the shack, as was the viewer, which made the design they held frustratingly hard to see. It was like “seeing” through a haze, a bit like walking around Times Square (I hear). Taken by the beauty I knew was there, I wandered around the space, enthralled and puzzled. Scenes of buildings, waves, and sky lined both sides culminating in a large panel showing the moon over the sea. Making my way to the gallery’s desk, I found that the work, titled “Arcade/Arcadia,” 2011, contains 34 hand engraved mirrors mounted on light boxes to form a 360 degree panorama of the town of Margate, England as seen from the beach. Hmmm…

Intentionally hard to see the amazing engraving on the mirrors.

Then same mirror, without anything in front of it. From the show’s catalog.

Unable to get the work out of my mind while I was looking at other shows, I went back to Danese/Corey later and bought the monograph, “ Ellen Harvey: The Museum of Failure1,” which has the backstory and images of the mirrors without reflections, (which, while defeating the point of the installation, allows appreciation of her amazing technique). I learned that the project was commissioned by the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, England for it’s opening in 2011. The shed is a remimagining of JMW Turner’s London gallery (in 3/4 size) and the mirrors are arranged in the way Turner displayed his work- “salon” style, as seen in George Jones  “Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works,” 1852. Along with another Painting George Jones did of it after Turner died, they are the only records we have of what JMW Turner’s gallery looked like.

George Jones “Interior of Turner’s Gallery: the Artist showing his Works,” 1952, Oil on canvas, Ashmolean Museum. Hmmm…George Jones believed in capitalizing “Artist,” like I do.

Turner loved Margate and lauded it’s natural beauty. So inspired, he is believed to have created around 100 Paintings of it, possibly including this one, given that he began using Margate as a second home around 1830.

JMW Turner, “Margate(?), Seen From the Sea,” c.1835-40, on loan from the National Gallery, London and seen in The Met Breuer’s “Unfinished” show in 2016, which I wrote about, here. Possibly one, of hundreds, of works he did depicting Margate.

In addition to finding inspiration, he, infamously, “shacked up” with his landlady there. The town eventually became a tourist mecca which led to it’s (over?) commercialization. When it fell on hard times, the amusement park, called “Dreamland,” (who’s sign Ms. Harvey pays homage to in her “Arcadia” sign, using the same font), closed and became a blight on the natural beauty which led so many to want to come there in the first place. In the piece, Ellen Harvey depicts a more recent view of Margate as seen from the beach, in apparent complete desolation.

The work is like an onion in it’s many layers. There’s the Turner layer, the Margate/nature layer, the Dreamland/commercialization layer, the mirror layer (with it’s funhouse effect, seen earlier), and the layer of light being distorted, which could be a reference to the light that Turner loved, and what’s become of it, with the addition of so many electric lights and buildings blocking sunlight. There’s, also, the layer of the styles of the two Artists, Ellen Harvey and JMW Turner, in dialogue. With the large shadow of no less than Turner looming, this is, certainly, a daring undertaking. Ms. Harvey’s mirrors contain many passages of sky and sea, crescendoing in the large center rear panel, that can’t help but remind today’s viewer of the English Master, though in decidedly her own style. Though “Dreamland” has recently reopened, the metaphor, and the warning, in the work is powerful, and both specific and universal. Experiencing it was a highlight among all the Art I’ve seen in 2017.

The rest of the show impressed me just as much. Adjacent to “Arcade/Arcadia,” was a Painting that depicted what looked to be a rough surface that seemed like it should be in relief, but was, in fact, flat. Hmmm…Is this the same Artist who just gave us all those meticulously engraved lines on those 34 mirrors2? It was closer in style to the Photographs of Aaron Siskind than the style I’d just seen. When I saw the title, I got it. “Crack/Craquelure.” Craquelure is a term referring to the cracking patterns seen in many old Paintings. “Nostalgia,” in another sense.

‘Crack/Craquelure,” 2017, Oil on wood panel.

There are other instances of “nostalgia” for the craft of Art in the show, like “Picture(esque),” 2017, Antique “Claude Glass,” float glass mirror, hook and plywood. A “Claude Glass,” (or “Black Mirror”) is an 18th & 19th century device, which Ms. Harvey is fond of.

“Picture(sque),” 2017. The “Black Mirror” was, also used for magic, particularly for seeing the future. Ellen Harvey’s work often contains images of ruins & destruction…images of a dark future.

They have been used by landscape Artists aiming for that special quality achieved by the great landscape Painter, Claude Lorrain (c.1604-1682), who it’s named after.

Claude Lorrain, “Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna,” 1639, seen at The Met. A classic example of the much admired, and copied, “dark” landscape, which inspired the “Claude Glass.”

Beyond the other themes present in this diverse show, there is the theme of mirrors. Since Robert Rauschenberg, I can’t think of another Artist who uses mirrors as frequently to such wonderful effect. Hand-engraved, without engraving, or with “Black Glass,” above. I asked the Artist about her use of mirrors, and specifically when it started. She replied, “I’ve always loved mirrors — but the first mirror piece I really made was in 2005 for the Pennsylvania Academy — aptly titled “Mirror” because I wanted to show the space and comment on their collection of paintings…and then I got hooked. Before that, I was all about Polaroids.” She’s referring to her monumental installation where she reinvisioned the entrance hall of the landmarked Furness and Hewitt Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Building, Philadelphia, as a ruin, using video and four 9 by 12 foot hand-engraved mirrors. Ruins are part of the “dark future” Ellen Harvey believes we are destined for. Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Last Judgement” was the first painting she fell in love with. “That red-hot sword is coming for us all,” she said3, referring to what looms above Christ’s left hand. If it’s coming, I hope it gets here before I have to file my “new” taxes.

Further on, “Nostalgia” takes on more of a traditional meaning in “Ghost of Penn Station,” 2017, Oil on wood panel, where we see the tragically lost Architectural masterpiece, rendered in oil, as if seen through a haze or in a dream. Whereas Ms. Harvey has created a number of works showing existing buildings (even creating an “Alien’s Guide to the (future) Ruins of Washington DC“) in ruins, this is a rare case where a building that was ruined is shown before, in all it’s glory. In the rear gallery, “New Forest (The I.R.S. Office Reforested),” 2013, Gesso, oil, acrylic, and varnish on wood,  about 13 1/2 feet long, shows a part of the I.R.S. offices (speaking of taxes) in a deserted state with the area in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Interestingly, the I.R.S. bought a sister work on the same subject, titled “Reforestation,” that, also, depicts their new offices in ruins, being reclaimed by nature, rendered in mirrors which, now installed, reflect those very offices! Fact is stranger than Art. When I asked Ms. Harvey about this, she replied to the effect that they have a, surprisingly, good sense of humor.

“New Forest (The I.R.S. Office Reforested),” 2013, Black gesso, oil, acrylic, varnish on 20 wooden panels. Overall- 13 1/3 feet long by 7 3/4 feet high. There is a social/political/economic conscience, or awareness that runs through Ellen Harvey’s work that I find most tastefully handled.

Finally, there is another, spectacular, engraved mirror work, the fascinating “On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset,” 2017, 16 Hand-engraved plexiglass mirrors, 16 Lumisheets, plywood. Ms. Harvey lets the wires for the light boxes dangle down in front…Yes. In front of the work,  another way of adding an obstacle to the “pure” appreciation of her image. They fall to a jumble of power strips on the floor, where they look as intricate as the engraving above them. Perhaps they’re a metaphor for the huge effort it took to get this close to the “impossible” task she refers to. (In earlier engraved mirror works (like “Destroyed Landscape (Cloudy Moon),” 2012, she scratched over the finished engraving, graffiti-like, making it almost impossible to see the underlying composition.)

“On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset,” 2017, 16 Hand-engraved plexiglass mirrors, 16 Lumisheets, plywood.

Close-up.

As I considered “Nostalgia,” over multiple visits, this work became something of a touchstone for me as I learned (and still learn) about her work. In it, her gorgeous technical achievement becomes subservient (in a way) to her “larger point.” Across her career, it seems to me that that “larger point” is her vision. About this, she said-

“What is it that all these viewers might want in this situation? That’s really where all of this work comes from. It comes from my desire to take particular situations, either physical or social, and say, ‘What is it that people want from Art in this situation?  What can Art do here?’ And of course the answers are often completely ridiculous. When you think about it what people dream of, it’s like falling in love with someone, it’s all projection. It’s a sort of mad fantasy that’s very hard to understand.” 4

“495 West 37th Street at Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, From The New York Beautification Project,” February, 2001, Oil on Wood(?) Wall. Close-up, right. Photos from ellenharvey.info, which has it’s backstory.

This “What can Art do here?” approach can be seen all the way back in 1999, in her remarkable “New York Beautification Project.” In it, the Artist hand painted 40 five by seven inch oval oil paintings on top of existing graffiti, over the course of 2 years! During the project, she was mugged once, and had encounters with the NYPD. While her remarkable Paintings were influenced by classic (and classical) landscape Paintings (WHAT could be MORE out of place in the world of NYC graffiti?), what floors me is the map of the locations she created them.

Map of locations of the Paintings in Ellen Harvey’s “New York Beautificalion Project,” 1999-2001. From ellenharvey.info

She almost circled the entire City! Ok, she did this without permission, or renumeration, as the works were affixed to non-movable locations, to the displeasure of gallerists, which might make you wonder…”WHY???” I chalk it up as an early sign of the scale of, the dedication to, and persistence of her vision. It was a taste of things to come.

Her “What is it that people want from Art in this situation?” reached, perhaps, it’s ultimate expression when only a short time later she got a chance to do public art “for real.” Actually? Two chances. The NYC MTA commissioned her to create the Art for TWO NYC Subway stations. She is one of the very few (perhaps, the only one?) to have been commissioned to do more than one. In 2005, she created “Look Up, Not Down,” in 2,000 square feet of the Queens Plaza Subway Station. This MTA video provides a look at it, and the backstory, and also includes rare glimpses of the NY Beautification Project’s Paintings, which are now long lost.

Then, in 2009, she was commissioned to do the Art for the (new) Yankee Stadium Metro North Station. Typically, she took a Yankees ad logo, “The Home of the Stars,” and flipped it in a way everyone could relate to- Yankee fan, or not.

Someone once said that mosaics are the most durable medium. There are gorgeous examples in The Met from 200 AD. So, it seems fairly likely that her work in the subway (at least) will last for at least the next 100, if not 1,000 years. I’ve lauded the MTA on their choices of Artists to create Art for the Subway before. Here is another case where I think they made an excellent choice. Both of these works are related to the sky and stars theme that continues in “Nostalgia.” Well? I’m not sure even Ellen Harvey is going to find a bigger stage than the stars.

Regarding her statement about giving the viewers what they want, I remain to be convinced that many, if anyone else, sees the world as Ellen Harvey does. It seems to me that she takes spaces (or materials) and reimagines them in ways visitors might enjoy, but, perhaps, don’t quite expect, and I doubt anticipated. Her work seems to cut across and through periods, schools, styles- abstract or realistic, to speak to people, and so, it “gives the people what they want.” That’s a pretty rare gift. Christo & Jeanne Claude come to mind as Artists who are/were capable of similar things. Her projects often require her to bring an extremely wide range of talents to bear, in an equally wide range of mediums and scale, to create her visions, though like Rauschenberg, she has said she considers herself a Painter. A Painter, who loves Painting dearly, though she has real doubts about it’s ongoing relevance given many of it’s original functions having been replaced by other mediums. For my part, it seems Painting was in trouble in the 90’s, but I’ve seen any number of very good (and relevant) Painting shows recently, especially this past year. Since Painting is, still, my favorite medium, I remain hopeful.

Looking through the 300 plus pages of “Museum of Failure” it’s very hard not to be amazed at the daring of her work, it’s diversity, as well as the consistent quality of it. In two instances she has taken on Painting reproductions of the bulk of the collections of two museums(!)- the Whitney and the nudes in the Bass Museum, Miami, and rendered them exceedingly well- regardless of the style or period. Yet Painting is just one of the many mediums she works, and excels, in.

With “Nostalgia,” one of the best shows of the fall season, you might think that Ellen Harvey would be satisfied. But, no. On December 13, ANOTHER show, including new work, “Ellen Harvey: Ornaments and Other Refrigerator Magnets,” opened at the Children’s Museum of Art downtown.

The CMA show continues her exploration of ornamentation (a subject near and dear to my heart), which, gets it’s own section on her website, showing work going back to at least 2002. It’s a show that, hopefully, will inspire and instill a love of ornament in a young audience that will grow up to bring it back to a world that sorely needs it. In it, another of her themes, seen in her 2014 installation, “The Unloved,” at the Groeninge Museum, Bruges, Belgium, comes to the fore- the forgotten/overlooked/yes, unloved, in Art. These days? Not much is more unloved than ornamentation in Architecture.

“Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humour to strike

[Chorus]
What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty”*

Appropriately, and prominently, placed around the show were various editions of Austrian Architect Adolf Loos’ essay collection, “Ornament & Crime,” as if saying “Ornament is NOT a crime!”

Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime,”a collection of essays, including the title piece, a lecture given in 1908, appropriately displayed on a lovely, ornate pedestal.

Featured is her 2015 “Metal Paintings for Dr. Barnes,” in which she painted every piece of metal work installed at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, on 826 wood panels with magnets inset then mounted on steel panels so they could be endlessly rearranged, unlike those in the Barnes.

“Metal Paintings for Dr. Barnes,” 2005, Oil on 826 wood panels with inset magnets, steel panels, overall, 25 by 15 feet, left, and “Mass Produced,” 2017, Metal hardware, screws, plywood, and plastic frame.

More recently, much of her work with ornaments has been inspired by her visits to the  American Wood Column Company, in Brooklyn, founded in 1916, and their collection of over 6,000 antique molds. On view was a 48 part visual catalog of samples of their work, which Ms. Harvey had photographed by accomplished Photographer Etienne Frossard, who has been working with her since 2012, in a new work titled “Mr. Lupo’s Collection,” in honor (in a sense) of this man and his company’s devotion to currently unloved work that may be on the verge of being lost.

“Mr. Lupo’s Collection,” 2017, 48 Framed Photographs, individually photographed by Etienne Frossard. (Apologies for the glare in my photo of them.)

Ornaments made by American Wood Column Company were featured in a large, new work that brings them right into the 21st Century. Not being satisfied with creating Art in two Subway stations, here, “Ornaments for the Subway,” 2017, goes further. It attempts to beautify that universal blight of all Subway stations- the ads. The card says, “It used to be that public spaces were covered with architectural ornaments rather than advertising….Here the Artist imagines taking back the public space from which they have been removed.” Bravo.

“Ornaments for the Subway,” 2017, Pressed glue ornaments made by the American Wood Column Co., plywood panels with inset magnets, subway posters and 20 steel panels.

Detail.

I spoke with Ellen Harvey at the opening, and she turned out to be exceedingly gracious, generously walking this complete stranger around her new show, pointing out all kinds of subtle detail that would take me many visits to discover. Here again, some of the themes I’ve seen in her other works are on display- a critique of Art, museums, and the rich, her passion for giving the viewers what they want, more use of mirrors (as mirrors this time!) and yes, “nostalgia,” is a theme, here, too. This work with mirrors includes people I know I’ve seen somewhere before.

“All That Glitters,” 2017. Card and detail below.

Detail of the lower right corner of the right side shows Mr. Putin, right, and Mr. Trump, above to the left of center, who’s wife appears elsewhere.

I titled this piece “Ellen Harvey’s Global Beautification Project,” because looking through her projects to date, they’ve taken place around the world, from California, to Miami to Philadelphia to Ghent, Bruges, Margate, Vienna, Warsaw, and of course, NYC, including the 2008 Whitney Biennial and the two Subway Stations. Together, they make part of a map of the world that will soon start to look like a global version of the map of her New York Beautification Project.

Before I left CMA, I came across “Walk In,” 2005, Oil on plywood and gilded frame, a booth to allow visitors to pose in glamorous surroundings, as if walking into a painting.

“Walk In,” 2005, 005, a work designed to be a background and frame in one for a do it yourself portrait.

Inspired by her work, and her approach, it was at that point that I decided to be a visionary, myself. “Hmmm….What does this picture need? What would the people like to see here?,” I asked myself.

The very gracious Artist graciously poses for yours truly in her “Walk In,” 2005.

And so, “My Portrait of Ellen Harvey” ends…with one.

“Ellen Harvey: Nostalgia” is my NoteWorthy show for November. 

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “All This Useless Beauty,” by Elvis Costello from the 1996 album of the same title, publisher not known to me. It’s rendered here.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. A new edition, which features “Arcade/Arcadia” on it’s cover, is the most complete book on her work and is recommended. Ellen Harvey’s website, ellenharvey.info is, also, a goto resource.
  2. The first question I asked Ellen Harvey was about engraving those mirrors- “What happens when you make a mistake?” “It happens often. I press on,” she said!
  3. “Ellen Harvey: Museum of Failure,” P. 299.
  4.  https://youtu.be/juIqarKNAGY

Gary Hume and The Long Goodbye

“Is it all in that pretty little head of yours?
What goes on in that place in the dark?
Well I used to know a girl and I would have
sworn that her name was Veronica”*

Too many people can relate to this.

Like cancer, almost everyone knows someone who’s suffering, or has suffered, from dementia or alzheimer’s disease. Gary Hume does. So do I. I mention it because that might make me, perhaps, not the most impartial viewer of Mr. Hume’s new show, “Mum,” at Matthew Marks Gallery. Mr. Hume’s “Mum,” Jill Henshaw, has dementia. The 14 works on view relate to his Mum, as seen by the Artist as a child, and as an adult. Mr. Hume said in a New York Times interview, “I just wanted to paint a picture of my mum, and I wanted to do it to honor her.”

Knowing the subject before I walked in, the show still blindsided me with it’s understated power. Though there is only 1 portrait of his Mum on display, the other works leaving it to the viewer to connect them with her, the real strength of the show comes in it’s sum effect.

It had me close to tears.

“Three Leaves,” 2016-17, Enamel paint on paper. Falling as part of the cycle of their life. Falling like tears. Or, they could be floating away on a river of rippled paper…Click any photo for full size.

Mr. Hume is part of the “Young British Artists” group that sprang out of the Freeze “Sensation” show in 1988, though he’s not as flamboyant as some of it’s other members who were his classmates, studying for their B.A.’s in Fine Art, at Goldsmiths College, London, at the time. Now 55, his choice of subject has led to Mr. Hume’s work taking something of a radical turn, resulting in his most personal show yet. While Artist’s mothers are certainly not an unusual subject in Art, dementia is, in my experience. In Art, perhaps it’s most been discussed by those wondering if they can “see” Willem de Kooning’s dementia in his work.

“Georgie,”(Mr. Hume’s wife), left, and “Mum on the Couch,” right, both 2017, Enamel paint on aluminum, and a perfect place for a bench.

An initial visit to the show gives the impression that Mr. Hume’s Paintings share the quiet dignity of Ellsworth Kelly’s final Paintings that recently hung on these same walls. They also possibly share a similar technique with Mr. Kelly’s Plant Drawings that hung next door at the same time, both Artists being fond of rendering a plant in outline. (I wrote about both Ellsworth Kelly shows here.) But their apparently simple compositions and minimal palette are deceiving.

Mr. Hume has developed new techniques that he has mastered to the point that he can use them with wonderful subtlety. Raised lines of paint lie on the flat surface, and act like the lines in a Drawing, delineating and detailing shapes. Elsewhere these lines are smudged, possibly with a finger, into the shape of a mouth, or an eye. They are executed in the same color as the shape they appear on, making details hard to see clearly, requiring the viewer to stand close to the work to see them. This remarkable effect adds to the “there/not thereness” of the image. Paintings on paper became crinkled and wavy as the enamel house paint Mr. Hume uses (in colors pre-mixed in a hardware store) dries creating marvelous textures and effects. Other works on aluminum have very flat background surfaces, and reflect light making it even harder to see the detail. Using these techniques, and others, Mr. Hume does a remarkable job of making us feel both presence and absence in the same image. They are, also, a meditation on the nature of memories.

Even standing in front of the bench, the detail is hard to see.

Close-up of “Georgie,” reveals one of the “drawing” techniques Mr. Hume uses to add still nebulous “details” to these works.

The middle room of the show features Paintings of his Mum, and his wife, Georgie, surrounded by Paintings of plants, flowers and gardens, including this one.

Abstraction of another sort. “Grandma Looks at the Garden,” 2017, Enamel paint on aluminum

“Well she used to have a carefree mind of her
own and a delicate look in her eye
These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure if her
name is Veronica”*

The third and final room seemed to be focused on life continuing. It includes a painting of yellow rain against an orange background that struck me as, possibily, a sunshower.

“Rain,” 2017, Enamel paint on paper. A seemingly “simple” idea that in the context of this show takes it entirely elsewhere.

Contrastingly, next to it, is possibly a garden seen at night, where only the outlines of the plants are visible. Together, they emphasize loss, and memory, being something felt day and night, triggered by almost anything, and manifesting themselves in every situation and time.

“No Light,” 2016, Enamel paint on aluminum. Difficult to see clearly, like many memories are…

On an adjacent wall, a bird looks skyward, it’s beak closed, without a song.

“The Diver,” 2016-17, Enamel paint on paper.

And, finally in this room, one of two Paintings of berries, “Ripe,” below, bursting with life. (Whiter to, from here?)

“Ripe,” 2015, Enamel paint on paper. Bursting with so much life, the paper can barely contain it.

Meanwhile, the flowers in the show are mostly muted. After all, flowers are, often, symbols of beauty, and loss. Seen at both weddings and funerals.

“Mourning,” 2016, Enamel paint on aluminum

In her article about these works in the New York Times, Barbara Pollack said that Mr. Hume “recoils at any interpretation that reduces the work to merely being a response to his visits with his mother. He prefers to think about the relationship to subject matter as a process of ‘permissions.’…” The thing about Paintings, or Art, is that once it’s been created and put on public display, every person who sees it will have their own “interpretation” of it. I doubt these (especially my own) line up with the Artist’s very often.

Perhaps nowhere here is this better summed up than in “Blind,” a 2016 Painting in the first room. Pale flowers are shown against a white background. A nut seems to be falling towards the lower right corner. Every time I see it, it speaks of something else, but it, also, speaks to loss/impending loss of a mother, with the seed, the harbinger of new life, symbolizing the offspring…himself.

“Blind,” 2016, Enamel paint on aluminum, seen in the show’s first room.

These “ridges” appear in a number of works (like the other flower Paintings above), and are interesting to contrast with the more often than the “softer technique he uses in “Georgie,””Mum on the Couch,” and “Rain.” I haven’t found out as yet how he creates them, but they are stunning and add much to the mystery, and beauty, of these works. The Artist has been trying to replicate them in his prints.

As I said, I may well not be impartial when looking at these works. Ironically, my Mom’s dementia first became apparent one Thanksgiving day. Ironically, this show happens to be up from November 4 to December 22. I was drawn back to it 3 times Thanksgiving week. Now, stepping back from myself, and thinking about the beauty and the power of “Mum,” and seeing other works that Mr. Hume has created recently in the show’s catalog, it seems to me that Gary Hume has made a breakthrough both stylistically, and in portraiture.

“Mum in Bed,” 2017, Enamel paint on aluminum, not on view in the show, from the show’s catalog.

“Do you suppose, that waiting hands on eyes,
Veronica has gone to hide?”*

Mr. Hume’s work has greatly evolved in the almost 30 years since the “Sensation” show brought him and the YBA’s to wide attention. For years known as the “quiet one” in that group, it’s hard for me not to feel he’s only now hitting his stride. Though I doubt that many will agree with me at the moment, Gary Hume may yet turn out to be the Artist the YBA’s are remembered for. While each work on view is uniquely beautiful on it’s own, it’s as a group where each plays a part in telling a larger story, a story of life, love and impending loss (“the long goodbye,” as it’s called), ironically, in slivers that are almost there…like memories.

Human memories may have a finite lifespan, even under the healthiest of conditions. It’s in translating them to other forms where they have their back chance to live on…indefinitely.

Gary Hume, “Mum,” is my NoteWorthy show for November. 
*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Veronica,” by D.P.A. MacManus (aka Elvis Costello) and Paul McCartney,  from “Spike,” published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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On The Frontiers of Photography: Trevor Paglen, Willa Nasatir, Caslon Bevington

While I’ve spent much of this year exploring the world of Photography, my focus has largely been on the period beginning with Robert Frank’s universally revered book “The Americans,” 1958. Most of those I’ve encountered work in fairly “traditional” realms- “Find a subject and shoot it.” Ah…the good old days. Of course, the world isn’t going to stand still for me while I look back, thank goodness, a point brought home by 3 concurrent shows this fall.

Unprecedented times call for extlraordinary means. Trevor Paglen at work on a prior project using equipment originally designed to see distant galaxies. Photo from his website.

Trevor Paglen (B. 1974), who holds both an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago’s School and a PhD in geography from Berkley is, perhaps, best known for his Photos of “black sites”- classified defense department/CIA/NSA installations. Those pictures are usually murky, because of the haze from the extreme distances he has to work from because of security, and legal, restrictions to shoot many of these places. He prefers them that way, usually foregoing clearer images because, as he told the New Yorker in 2012, his “aim is not to expose and edify so much as to confound and interest1.” In the same piece, he said that a clearer image would say “a little less, really,” adding “that blurriness serves both an aesthetic and an ‘allegorical’ function2.” “It makes his images more arresting while providing a metaphor for the difficulty of uncovering the truth in an era when so much government activity is covert,” writer Jonah Weiner concluded3. As a result, some of his more “atmospheric” work have been compared to Painters, including J.M.W. Turner and Gerhard Richter, by some.

So, I was somewhat surprised when I walked into his new show, “A Study of Invisible Images,” at Metro Pictures. Robert Longo’s “The Destroyer Cycle” had recently been up on these walls, featuring huge charcoal drawings deep with socio-political imagery. I was expecting more of the same from Mr. Paglen given his books of “black site” Photos.

That’s not quite what we get.

Installation view, with a still from his video, “Behold These Glorious Times,” 2017. Click any image for full size.

It’s about something different, though not entirely unrelated. It turns out that Mr. Paglen has, also, been deeply involved in studying computer learning, specifically, how computers see the world. As he explains in the “Artist’s Notes” for the show-

 “Over the past decade or so, something dramatic has happened to the world of images: they have become detached from human eyes. Our machines have learned to see. Without us.”

He goes on to talk about how smart airports, smart homes, even smart cities are becoming ubiquitous, with self-driving cars possibly on the way, before adding, “Most images these days are made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop. I call this world of machine-machine image making ‘invisible images,’ because it’s a form of vision that’s inherently inaccessible to human eyes. This exhibition is a study of various kinds of these invisible images.” They break down to three groups- “machine readable landscapes (landscape images overlaid with marks that show how they’re being interpreted by machines), training images (made by humans for machine eyes), and things that we might call ‘ghosts.'”

“It Began as a Military Experiment,” 2017, ten pigment prints

While the new iPhone X uses facial recognition technology instead of passwords or fingerprints, this technology is nothing new. The military wanted it developed back in the mid-1990’s, so the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began funding research. They quickly realized they needed to create a gigantic database of facial images and these folks, above, mostly military employees, were among the first of tens of thousands of photos it took and compiled into what was called the FERET database. Mr. Paglen then combed this database to arrive at this selection of faces. He then ran them through an algorithm to locate the key features of their faces. “One of the ways I think about these portraits is as a kind of super-structuralism in the sense that they are images not made for human eyes. They are meant for machine eyes. What’s more, these photos represent the original faces of human facial recognition- the ‘Adam and Eves’ that nearly all subsequent facial recognition research has been built upon,” he says in the “Artist’s Notes.”

Closeup of the fifth portrait, shows the key points on his face.

Recognizing one face out of this gigantic database first requires a “faceprint,” made out of all of the faces of a particular subject, aligned so their eyes and mouths are in the same place. Once you “average” them, you subtract the average image of all the other people in the database from the average of your subject. You’ll end up with a faceprint of your subject showing what distinguishes him form everyone else in the group. This portrait translates the faceprint of philosopher Frantz Fanon into an image that looks like a face to human eyes.

We’ve gone from the images seen just above- images that humans would recognize as people and faces, to this, an image constructed from computer to computer images so humans can recognize it as a face. “Fanon” (Even the Dead Are Not Safe) “Eigenface,” 2017, Dye sublimation metal print. The Afro-Carribbean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon is the subject.

It gets stickier from there. The Artist’s Notes continue, “A.I.s (artificial intelligences) are taught how to recognize objects by giving them training sets….(which may) consist of thousands or even millions of images organized into pre-sorted classes that correspond to each of the kind of objects that the A.I. will eventually be able to distinguish. For example, if you want to train an A.I. to recognize all the objects in a kitchen, you might give it a thousand pictures of a fork, a spoon, a knife, a countertop, etc…Once that A.I. is trained, you can give it a picture of a fork it has never seen before and it should be able to recognize it as a fork. ” After mentioning that “every image posted to Facebook or other social media sites undergoes powerful artificial intelligence algorithms that can recognize the identities of people, the objects, the products, and even the place depicted in those images,” Mr. Paglen created his own “massive” training sets, “based on literature, philosophy, folk-wisdom, history, and other ‘irrational’ things, and taught the A.I. to recognize things from those ‘corpuses.'” The last half of the show consists of the results of these experiments, which are much more ethereal and evocative than literal, at least to this human’s eyes.

“A Man (Corpus: The Humans) Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations,” 2017, Dye sublimation print.

Mr. Paglen has groups this part under the broad heading of “Hallucinations,” or “Adversarilly Evolved Hallucinations.” These further break down into the subcategories, or “Corpuses,” which includes-
“Corpus: Eye Machines” (Fittingly)
“Corpus: American Predators” (The Artist’s notes include Mark Zuckerberg, who he lists as a “predatory machine,” reminding viewers that computers mine every image loaded to his site and are capable of reading a tremendous amount of information from them.)
“Corpus: The Humans” (As seen in the image above. Porn was included in the training sets, and another image depicts it as seen by a computer…or so the title says.)
“Corpus: Omens and Portents”
“Corpus: Interpretations of Dreams” (Examples of both are seen below.)

“Rainbow (Corpus: Omens and Portents),” left, “False Teeth (Corpus: Interpretation of Dreams) both from “Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations,” 2017, Dye sublimation prints.

Trevor Paglen seems to like to push the boundaries of our perception while avoiding the sharp detail most Photographers live by, which, indeed, ventures into the domain of Painting. Now, he has gone beyond what humans can perceive, and into the realm of what is only “seen” by computers to create Art for humans. I wonder how long it will be before computers get around to doing that for us on their own.

Installation view, with another still from his video, “Behold These Glorious Times,” 2017.

These images are haunting, nightmarish, and beautiful, at the same time. In his Art Basel Conversation with Jenny Holzer, Mr. Paglen said the basis of his work can be summed up as- “How do you see the historical moment that you live in?” This show certainly provides answers to part of that question, though it raises others. Mr. Paglen’s new work is no less unsettling than his “black sites” and drone Photos. Perhaps most unsettling is not what’s in these images. It’s what they portend for the future.

Willa Nasatir,”R.V.,””The Green Room,””Bird,””Blue Girl,””Sunbather,””Conductor,” 2017, Chromongenic print mounted on wood, from left to right. Installation view, Whitney Museum.

Unlike the other Artists featured in this piece, Willa  Nasatir (B. 1990) doesn’t use digital techniques to create her Photographs. That might be hard to believe after seeing her work. Her analog process involves creating props, often from found objects, shooting them, and then reshooting the resulting Photographs, which has sometimes been modified by fire, water, and any number of other things. The results, as seen in her revelatory Whitney Museum show, “Willa Nasatir,”achieve something of a 3D effect in a 2D work. Fresh from a show at the Knox-Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, who owns one of her most stunning images, Ms. Nasatir shows herself to be at once a throwback, and a visionary.

“The Red Room,” 2017, Chromongenic print mounted on wood. The-Albright-Knox Art Gallery owns this one. They chose well.

Ms. Nasatir created the 6-part work, shown first in this section, especially for the Whitney’s long gallery wall, the unifying feature of which seems to be the color grey with green or blue. All of the works on view are dated 2017 and show a remarkably consistent unity of style and vision, and a somewhat daring use of color.  As for what’s going on in these, or any of her work? You’re on your own. The Whitney’s introduction to the show says, in part, “The resulting works are hand-manipulated images that become psychologically charged and difficult to discern; the viewer is left to parse out unresolved narratives that the image only implies.”

“The Green Room,” 2017. When I look at this, with it’s mirror reflection, even some of it’s props, I can’t help but recall Samara Golden’s work in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

Hmmm…Where have I heard that recently? Her style shares some similar props and some of the effect of Samara Golden’s work, particularly “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes,” 2017, which I felt was the show-stopper of this year’s Whitney Biennial. Ms. Golden’s work can look like “sets” that Willa Nasatir might base one of her Photographs on. Whereas I called Ms Golden’s astounding work in this year’s Whitney Biennial “unphotographable,” (as a whole), Ms. Nasatir’s Photographs are often impossible to locate in the real world. Both Artist’s works features elements of the “known world,” but place them in contexts which are unknown, mysterious, ominous.

Samara Golden’s “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes,” (detail), 2017, at the Whitney Biennial earlier this year.

In thinking about precedents for Ms. Nasatir’s work, Man Ray once again comes to mind. Ray, of course, didn’t use digital techniques, either. He pre-dated them. The Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, the German Expressionist filmmakers also come to mind, as do Robert Rauschenberg’s found objects. But, as with Samara Golden, it’s what these image stir in the mind, and the mind’s eye, that overcomes any attempt at reference- in the real world, or the historical one.

Willa Nasatir, “Street Sweeper,” right, “Half Heart, Bus Depot,” both 2017, Gelatin silver prints.

It all fades away as you ponder “What happened here?” Or, “What is about to happen?,” and then feel resonances in your mind and life. Oh, and by the way, there’s the beauty of her work, which I say as almost an afterthought, though it’s not, to their main impact- mystery.

“Butterfly,” 2017, Chromongenic print mounted on wood.

With two museums shows to her name by her mid-20’s, Willa Nasatir is an Artist who’s stock is rising pretty quickly. It will be interesting to see how her work evolves from here.

Caslon Bevington (B. 1992) is an up and coming NYC Artist I met during the run of the Raymond Pettibon show at David Zwirner. Her reaction to that show struck me, so I became interested in seeing her work. To this point, I had only seen what’s on view on her gallery’s, Apostrophe NYC’s, website.

One of the earlier pieces by Csalon Bevington I saw on Apostrophe NYC’s site. When I saw it in person, I guesstimated it at 12 feet tall. Photo courtesy of the Artist & Apostrophe NYC

My shock was palpable when I walked into her show, “A Home for Formless Creatures: The Charisma of Fragmentation,” at Apostrophe NYC’s studio & gallery space at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, NJ. (Yes…I went to N.J.) to find she had spent the summer creating a new body of work that, at first look seemed quite different from what had come before. When I looked at the show of new work one word summed up the experience.

Qucksilver…

Installation view of Caslon Bevington’s show “A Home for Formless Creatures: The Charisma of Fragmentation,” shows her new, “Translation,” series, 2017. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and ApostropheNYC

As fast as lightning, her work had altogether changed and, low and behold, there was an entire show of new work that was largely unlike any of her work I’d seen thus far. The show centered on a series of 10 works in which the Artist takes found and original images and processes them using more software programs than she could list for me, including some involving sound waves. The results were outputted to paper and then mounted on wood blocks with resin to create a series of black and white works titled “Translation” that are quite mezmerizing.

Caslon Bevington, “Translation #8”, 2017. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC

They have the glossy surface of gelatin prints, but the images are mounted on blocks that extend 2 and a half inches out from the wall, jutting into the viewer’s space. Their rectangular shape and size (7 x 11 inches) is different from the usual sizes of Photographs, making them feel like something else. In them, images are juxtaposed- sometimes recognizable images (like fire escapes), with unrecognizable images, or repeating lines or waves, or abstract patterns or circles, leaving the viewer somewhere between reality and…?

“Translation #10,” 2017. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

They have a presence as a group, like a visit to another world that exists in multiple visual dimensions. Images explode out of some, interrupt others, or dialogue with each other, or mirror each other, while sharing not quite half of the work. There’s an elegance, an other-worldliness, and a haunting presence to these new works, especially, when seen in a group of them.

As for Quicksilver…What are the processes in an Artist’s mind that leads to such radical changes in their direction? Changes that seem “quick” to outsiders?

The Artist’s statement in the lovely catalog she produced, in conjunction with Apostrophe NYC, for the show.

Later, she gave me a tour of her studio, and we looked at, and discussed, her earlier work. I was very surprised at the journey her work has taken. Having studied at the Art Student’s League and Parsons, the drawings she showed me were by no means academic. They explored geometric possibilities of color in abstraction. Later works all around were often complex weaves (literally) of painted cut strips of fabrics and canvas, in a square or rectangular grid. She then explored the possibilities of rope in patterns that freed the composition from the grid, and made the picture plane transparent, including one fascinating and intricate rope work of many layers on a large rectangular frame that looked to me to be about 12 feet tall (shown earlier). Ms. Bevington has also worked in metals bending strips of them onto a frame, delicately weaving each piece, and in fashion, creating a very cool T Shirt for the show.

“Flying Saucer Archive,” 2017, Photo Transfer on Linen. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

Along with these works, were some works, that also involved Photographs, on woven grids, that seem to bridge the woven grids seen in some of her prior work. One features found images of UFO’s, or what might be UFO’s. Two others featured images of sunsets shot from moving vehicles.

“Photos of Sunsets Taken From Moving Cars #1 & 2,” 2017, left to right. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

Whereas earlier she took abstract painted canvas cut into strips and imposed “order” on them by subjecting them to being woven into a rectangular or square grid, now she does the same thing using images. Along with these, also on view was an Artist’s Book she created from found images using all kinds of search algorithms- closeups of fabrics, rugs, and she only knows what else. Caslon tried to explain the process of finding and selecting it’s images to me, but I was lost looking at the pages go by as she turned them. Besides, knowing too much often steals some of the mystery. This beautiful object was produced in an edition of 9, while the other works shown were unique.

Yes, there was Painting, too. “Static Painting,” 2017, Oil on Wood. Photo by Roman Dean, courtesy of the Artist and Apostrophe NYC.

The “Translation” pieces struck me, among other things,  as creating successful, new, compositions out of the juxtaposition of existing images. Thinking about her new and earlier work, while she makes something “else” out of unexpected combinations (of materials or images), for this viewer, they share the common thread of having a “new order” brought to them.

Caslon Bevington seen with “Translations #10, 11, 12, 13 and 14,” 2017, left to right, at Apostrophe NYC’s gallery at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City.

Caslon Bevington is part of “Base 12,” “an experimental project…(that) groups together 12 emerging artists in a quasi-collective,” represented by Apostrophe NYC, which is run by the brothers Sei and Ki Smith, and has been in residency at Mana Contemporary. Given how rapidly Caslon’s work is evolving, seemingly like quicksilver, she’s an Artist who will be fascinating to watch. It will be interesting to see what she does next, and if she continues to explore this new realm of her work, or moves to another new frontier.

Bonus Show- Lucas Samaras (B. 1936) may be as familiar to many Art lovers as a subject for Chuck Close (like this one) as he is for his own work. At his new show, “New York City, No-Name, Re-Do, Seductions,” at Pace, 510 West 25th Street, all the works on view were digitally modified Photographs. The show  concluded with a large gallery of what he calls “Kastorian Inveiglements,” works that began as Photographs that depict “every day objects” subsequently manipulated in Photoshop into symmetrical abstractions.

Lucas Samaras, “NO NAME (Kastorian Inveiglements),” 2017, Pure pigment on paper mounted on Dibond

Detail of lower left quadrant.

Having seen other Artists experiment with these, though not to this level of complexity or accomplishment, I decided to try one myself to gain an understanding of the process. Here is my first experiment-

“Symmetrical Abstraction 1,” 2017, based on one of my Photos.

It shows that I’ve got a ways to go to match Mr. Samaras, as I do in getting up to speed on the frontiers of Photography, and Photo-based Art. Before it moves, again.

“Willa Nasatir” is my NoteWorthy show for October, though it ended on October 1.
*- Sundtrack for this Post is “X-Ray Visions,” by Clutch, from the appropriately titled album “Psychic Warfare.”

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. New Yorker, October 22, 2012, P.56
  2. ibid P.57
  3. ibid P.56-57

Up All Night With Frank Lloyd Wright

“Architects may come
Architects may go
and never change your point of view.
When I run dry
I stop awhile
and think of you.”*

Once, back in the day, I came home from work on a Friday evening and put that Simon & Garfunkel song on. Then, I hit the repeat button. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” played all weekend, non-stop, until I had to go to work on Monday. Even while I slept.

Such was my life under the spell of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The mark of genius. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “symbol” (the red square) and his signature on the corner of one of his Drawings. “The color red is invincible. It is the color not only of blood-it is the color of creation. It is the only life-giving color in nature…1” Click any photo for full size.

I guess I hoped that playing this unique song from “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with it’s unusual marriage of Brazilian rhythm and a string quartet under the ethereal vocals, would lend a different perspective on Wright and his work.

In the years after my father passed, Wright, became an all encompassing figure to me, something I didn’t realize until a German Architect I was dating pointed it out to me. She might have been (W)right. Looking back, though, I think it was the discovery of, and the falling in to, the seemingly bottomless pit of creativity that was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the enigma and charisma of the man, his ideas and his accomplishments (including the countless buildings he designed that were never built, or that were built and since lost). This passion took many forms in my life at the time. Along the way, I learned that the man was a great Artist in other ways beyond Architecture- as a draughtsman and, in my opinion, as a writer. His writings often marry Art & Architecture and philosophy. He was, also, something of a “teacher,” or model, later in his life at his Taliesen Fellowship. His “teaching” seems to have greatly influenced some, and left others unhappy. Beyond all of this work, his personal life? Well…as I’ve said previously about others…is not for me to judge. My interest in is the Art, his creative ideas and the work.

Speaking of teaching & learning…Just outside MoMA’s show, in “The People’s Study,” the public was invited to create and experiment with a range of materials, including blocks, which Wright, himself, created with as a child. Along the windows, they were invited to design their own “Broadacre City,” Wright’s concept for urban/suburban development.

MoMA’s show, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is a major event, honoring two major events.  First, it opened on June 12th, four days after Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday. Second, it marks the joint acquisition by MoMA and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library of Columbia University of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives. It’s a fascinating show, though, of course, it’s a mere sliver of the massive Archive that will keep scholars busy for decades Some of the early fruits of their labors were on view, particularly in short videos on display in each gallery where curators spoke of some of the highlights they’ve found so far. Parts of Wright’s Archives have been known to me through earlier shows at MoMA and the Guggenheim, and through books, most notably “In His Renderings,” the final volume of  the landmark 12 volume box set published by A.D.A Edita Tokyo in 1984, right in the middle of my Wright obsession2. The 200 drawings “In His Renderings” included made the case for Wright’s drawings being works of Art in themselves, and a good many of them are in MoMA’s show, which totals about 450 items. Indeed, they are right at home on the walls of the great museum.

The show is made up of galleries devoted to individual projects and galleries devoted to aspects of his work. Of course, given his career lasted over 60 years, only selected Wright projects are here and they range from key buildings, like the “Imperial Hotel,” 1923, to some much less well known, like his design for the “Rosenwald School” “for Negro Children,” 1928, as it was labelled, as well as galleries devoted to Wright’s Ornamentation (an almost completely lost art in today’s Architecture), Urban projects, the role of landscaping in his projects, and built, and (mostly) unbuilt projects for NYC. There is also a gallery showing 2 rare videos of Frank Lloyd Wright- one an infamous interview with Mike Wallace in 1957, the other an appearance on the game show, “What’s My Line.” The long central, first gallery includes a range of Drawings, many masterpieces- both as Architecture and as Artworks, from a wide range of periods of Wright’s career, including the “Winslow House,” 1893, “Unity Temple,” 1908, “Fallingwater,”1935, and the “Marin County Civic Center,” which opened in 1962.

Frank Lloyd Wright seen at the end of the first gallery as he’s interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1957, at age 90. Still sharp as a tack.

When Wright burst on the scene, after leaving his employer & mentor, the great Louis Sullivan3, the “Father of the Skyscraper,” (who he held in such high esteem, he referred to him as “Lieber Meister,” German for “Dear Master”), and began his own practice, there was no such thing as a truly “American” style of Architecture.

Louis Sullivan’s “Bayard-Condict Building,” 1898, on Bleecker & Crosby Streets, his only NYC building, was one of the first steel skeleton skyscrapers in NYC. As the columns between the windows rise, they lead to the parapet decorated with angels.

Even half-hidden by scaffolding the genius of Louis Sullivan’s ornament is impossible to miss, here on the entrance.

While Henry Hobson Richardson and Sullivan (both a bit under appreciated today), had taken steps towards creating an American style, Wright completed it with the introduction of his Prairie Style in the first decade of the 20th Century, like the “Unity Temple,” 1908, in Oak Park, IL, below.

Rendering of “Unity Temple,” Oak Park, IL, 1908, which still stands, an example of his “Prairie Style,” with it’s low, land-hugging profile. Wright, who’s church was “Nature,” went on to design churches for many religions.

Off the central gallery, the first side gallery is devoted to Wright’s “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Incredibly, it was dedicated on September 1, 1923, the very day of the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake that killed 100,000 people and leveled almost every other structure in Tokyo, except for Wright’s Masterpiece, which he had designed to withstand such an event. Instant world-wide fame followed. The genius in it’s floating concrete foundation below was also abundant in the superhuman amount of creativity above it.

“Imperial Hotel,” 1923, cross section.

Wright designed the furniture, the windows, the lamps, the dishes- all of it. He created a massive building that was one unified composition from top to bottom, down to the smallest detail. I couldn’t get over it. Yet, the “Imperial Hotel,” was far from the only building he did this for. No other Wright structure has captured my fascination, and awe, more than the “Imperial Hotel” (which is saying something), perhaps because, though it was gigantic, so little of it remains- even in photographs, film or books (An amazing online collection of photos and relics of the “Imperial Hotel” I’ve seen is to be found here.). What is left teases the viewer to imagine the rest. I’ve tried to imagine walking around in it…what that must have looked like and felt like. It withstood what Nature (Wright capitalized it, since he said it was his “religion,” my inspiration for capitalizing “Art,” “Music,” “Painting,”etc.) threw at it, and World War II, but it couldn’t withstand the rising value of Tokyo real estate leading to it’s tragic demolition in 1958 after standing for a mere 45 years! The facade was saved and reconstructed at Japan’s Meiji Mura Outdoor Architectural Museum, a few pieces of furniture are in The Met (which also has one of the Urns that was out in front of the entrance), and other items are in collections elsewhere.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s First Symphony. The “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Imagine designing this, AND all the furniture, dishes, windows, lamps, and on an on. For my money, one of mankind’s supreme creative achievements. It’s so large it extends off the frame from across the street. Part of the entrance is barely visible to the right, center.

Fragments of the “Imperial Hotel.”  The two side chairs are on loan from The Met. The dishes are reproductions.

Wright’s other huge early masterpiece was Chicago’s “Midway Gardens,” 1914, an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex in the Hyde Park section. Again, Wright designed all of it, and once again, almost nothing remains. Either one of these two buildings would have been enough to secure his name, and his legend. “Midway Gardens” stood for FIFTEEN years. The loss of both is a cultural tragedy that will echo on through centuries to come.

Like a vision of the past through a misty glass. Rendering of “Midway Gardens,” 1913, Chicago. Another early lost masterpiece.

Represented in MoMA’s show by this “Block for Midway Gardens,” 1914. Remnants of it are extremely rare. Photos of, and more about “Midway Gardens” can be found here. (Scroll down.)

Gone forever was the chance for young Artists & Architects to experience and be directly influenced by them the way you only can from seeing Architecture, or Art, in person. Wright’s buildings require your presence in their space to fully appreciate them. He was fond of low corridors giving way to large open spaces, and this is just one of the experiences you can’t get from a book. Speaking of books, after one of my visits, I wandered into MoMA’s bookstore. A young couple next to me picked up a book on Wright and one said, “What did he build? Oh! He did the Guggenheim.” I thought everyone knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was. I don’t know if they went up to see the show or not, but I decided then and there to write this Post.

After these early masterpieces, Wright’s style evolved from the Prairie style, through the Mayan and Japanese influence seen in the “Imperial Hotel” and a number of houses he designed at the time, to his “Usonian”style of the mid-1930’s, to buildings beyond style, like the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” “Fallingwater,” and eventually, The “Guggenheim Museum.” They would all fall under the umbrella of “Organic Architecture.” The “Usonian” houses began around 1936, and have a style which brings these houses even closer to the land than the “Prairie Style” houses, being almost universally a single storey, while featuring simpler materials, which, Wright believed, would make them more affordable. Though more “popularly priced”, he still designed all the furniture for them as well, and the chair I once owned came from a “Usonain” house. These “Usonian” houses, along with his “Broadacre City,” were part of his vision for urban and suburban landscape design, called “Usonia,” as in “U.S.-onia.”

Rendering of the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” 1936. It’s innovations are everywhere from the dendriform columns in the great workspace that rise from 9 inch bases to 15 foot “lily-pad” tops (see below), to the design of the furniture to expedite cleaning, to the use of glass tubes to block out the “urban blight” outside while creating a soft light inside. A sideshow of Photos of this incredibly beautiful building are here.

No one believed Wright’s slender columns for the Johnson Wax HQ could support enough weight to be practical. So, he staged this demonstration and piled 60 TONS on top of one! Photographer unknown. 81 years later? They’re still standing tall.

The later masterpieces while unique to themselves, still remain true to Wright’s core beliefs. Herbert F. Johnson, president of the S.C. Johnson Company hired Wright to build his company’s corporate headquarters in 1936 in Racine, Wisconsin. The resulting landmark, above, is a sheer wonder- a cathedral of capitalism. Though they encountered some problems, Mr. Johnson was so pleased with Wright that he contracted him to build a research tower on the property and then to design a large house for himself, known as “Wingspread.”

Within the year, he, also, created what may be the most famous private house ever built. “Fallingwater,” for Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann’s department store.

Rendering of “Fallingwater,” 1935. Legend has it that Wright had put nothing on paper though his client, Edgar Kaufman, was on his way from the airport to see the design of his house. Wright had it all in his head and put it down on paper in time for Mr. Kaufman’s arrival. This is probably not that Drawing.

Perhaps nowhere in Art is there greater harmony of Art & Nature than there is in “Fallingwater,” which may make it Wright’s ultimate expression of his “Organic Architecture.” In it, the Artist strives to achieve the ultimate- create something worthy of a spectacular natural site, a work that seems to grow out of it, and be integral to it. Mr. Kaufmann was expecting the house to be sited across from the waterfall so he could enjoy looking at it. Instead, Wright put the house directly on top of it, centering the living room on a rock the family liked to picnic on.

As a result of all of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that later in his career he spoke defiantly about the Architects of the new “International Style,” with their bland, impersonal boxes of steel and glass, that are about as far from “Nature” as anything could be. Here in NYC, as in many other places, a casual look around reveals they’re already dated, and many (most? All?) are plain eyesores. One thing MoMA’s show reinforces is that Wright’s work has a way of not going out of fashion. Perhaps it’s because it’s so tightly integrated with it’s surroundings- with nature. It also helps that most of what he built and remains is out in nature, i.e. not in a City. Then again, perhaps it’s because his endless, unique, creativity serves to constantly inspire. Like the song says. For myself, my now long-standing passion for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright leaves me wondering if he is not the greatest Architect who ever lived. I’m lucky. I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Art or Artists. But if I did? That’s one statement I might actually make. Now, I’m content wondering.

“The tree that escaped the forest.” Like a tree, it looks different from every angle. Originally designed for Astor Place in Manhattan, after it was rejected, it was redesigned and became the only “skyscraper” Wright built during his lifetime, the “Price Tower” in, you guessed it- Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Speaking of “not being in the City,” though Wright has only one building in NYC, that’s not because he didn’t try. Though he loathed cities, particularly this one, he did. He designed many structures that he wanted to have built here but he was shot down by the powers that be every single time4! Only when he had a client powerful enough to push through his project did the Guggenheim get built. MoMA’s show serves as a reminder of this nightmare as it shows us some of the projects he envisioned for the City, along with an in-depth look at the Guggenheim’s coming to be. It, therefore, serves to remind us that the travails of that other brilliant Architect named “Frank,”…Gehry, has had getting projects built here are nothing new. To date. Mr. Gehry, who has tried to get countless plans built that would have transformed the City, to date has only two. Between Wright & Gehry? Ohhhh…the City we should have had.

Rendering of the “New York Sports Pavilion,” for Belmont Park, 1956 , another of the countless structures Wright designed for Manhattan that were never built.

As his only NYC building, the Guggenheim Museum it is still able to inspire with it’s incredibly bold vision almost 60 years on. It echoes the trees across 5th Avenue in Central Park as a way of bringing a hint of Nature across the street into the City. But, lesser known is the building as we see it now went through quite a metamorphosis on the way. Take a look at this-

The Guggenheim Museum underwent extensive design modifications between this model and the finished building. Looking at it from the 5th Avenue side, very little is the same besides the ramp/rotunda (though here it’s located on the East 89th Street corner, instead of the East 88th Street corner, to the right, as it was built), and the lower overhanging floor. Everything else is different.

This detail fascinates me. It shows Wright’s rarely seen original design for the roof, most notably the skylight over the famous rotunda. The variously sized circles make much more sense to the overall composition than the grid that’s up there now, since so much of the composition involves circles (right down to circles being etched on the sidewalk out front). Of course, the Guggenheim chose to ignore all of this when they put a square building behind it. I wonder why this design was not used. Nor were the surrounding small domes.

The rotunda is now on the right in this rendering, done to demonstrate how it would look in pink. Yes…pink! Still, along with the final color, so much about the building remained to be finalized even here.

The Guggenheim didn’t follow through on all of Wright’s ideas when completing the building (which may, or may not explain the current skylight). So, perhaps, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the Guggenheim was altered in the early 1990’s, terribly in my opinion. I was actively involved in trying to prevent it, and the modification of the Breuer Whitney Museum (now, unmodified, it’s The Met Breuer). To that end, in June, 1987, my letter was published in the New York Times-

My letter in the NY Times Op-Ed page opposing the & Guggenheim & Whitney modifications, June, 1987. I love the very fitting drawing they added.

“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long.”*

Today, are there ANY Architects who are also designing the dishes, rugs, windows, lamps & furniture for their buildings on a regular basis? Having owned an original Frank Lloyd Wright chair I can attest to both the ingenuity of the design (though “impractical” most people who saw it said, it’s 3 legs required you to sit with both feet on the floor, or fall off. Wright teaching proper posture), and to the fact that it was in itself a miniature work of Architecture. When I thought of Wright, I thought of Brahms, Mahler or Anton Bruckner (all of whom were alive during Wright’s lifetime) or his beloved Bach & Beethoven. Wright was building symphonies in the physical world. The extraordinary attention to detail in his work- down to even designing the napkin rings at “Midway Gardens,” is something akin to the musical structure of any of those Composer’s compositions, where every note plays a role in the whole. Wright creates a unified physical structure that is hard to find in any other Architect’s work- before or after. Music was the only analogy I could think of for what he had done. At least for me. I think he may have agreed- music was always central to him, particularly chamber music, which he would have weekly performances of at his Taliesin homes. It was hard for me to understand my fascination & obsession with all things Frank Lloyd Wright until I realized what he was doing was creating buildings the way Bach, Mahler or Bruckner created “edifices in sound.” Wright loved music and the connection is something that needs closer study.

Like Picasso, or Miles Davis, he was not one to stay in the same place for long. They are the only two other 20th Century Masters who had multiple unique “periods.” Wright’s style continually evolved, but it were always true to his principles- using nature as the supreme guide, building in harmony with the site, and building “organically.”

Approaching age 90, Wright unveiled one of his most daring ideas yet- “The Illinois,” perhaps better known as the “Mile High Skyscraper,” because that’s what it was- a mile tall. A number of Drawings related to it were on view at MoMA, five about 8 feet high each.

8 foot tall rendering of “The Illinois,” 1956. Wright’s “Mile High Skyscraper.” Designed to be made of concrete, some doubt it’s feasibility. It would have been FOUR times the height of the Empire State Building!

Interestingly, in one Drawing, the “Mile High” shares the sheet with extensive text. The curator’s video in the gallery says this drawing is his second “Autobiography,” to the book of that title. On it, Wright pays tribute to his influences, and proceeds to list some of his accomplishments. As a result, it’s perhaps the most fascinating drawing in the show. It’s something of a testament. It’s hard for me to look at the “Burj Khalifa” in Dubai and not think it’s Architect, Adrian Smith of S.O.M., owes a serious debt to “The Illinois.” It’s “only” 2,722 feet tall, though, half of the proposed height of “The Illinois.”

Wright’s “salutations,” list of accomplishments, and building stats on the top half of another 8 foot tall drawing of the “Mile High.”

One striking thing about Frank Lloyd Wright is that at the time of his death on April 9, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright was exactly half as old as his country. (He was 91, the country was 182 years old.) Remarkable. When Wright started in Architecture, working for Joseph Silsbee in 1872, he did so in a Chicago that was still digging out from the Great Fire the previous year. There were no skyscrapers until his “Lieber Meister” Sullivan began to create them 20 years later. When he passed away in 1959, one of his final masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum was about to open. Much had changed in the 87 years between. But, given that he stayed true to his core belief in “Organic Architecture,” (“building as nature builds,” he said), I’m not sure that Wright changed all that much as much as he evolved. As a result, in the final analysis, he showed us that his idea was infinitely pliable, and that creativity and imagination had a central role in it, something that seemed to go out of Architecture, increasingly, during that same period. While some of his greatest works are gone, his Archives contain an enormous wealth of materials that can bear witness to them, and the thousand or so projects he undertook (about 400 or so still stand). It was a lot for one life- even one that lasted 91 years.

Frank Lloyd Wright during the “Mike Wallace Interview,” 1957, near the age of 90, two years before he passed away.

“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
I can’t believe your song is gone so soon
I barely learned the tune
So soon, so soon”*

As I left this show, filled with that same, familiar, head-shaking amazement, I was reminded of a quote of Wright’s- “The scientist has marched in and taken the place of the poet. But one day somebody will find the solution to the problems of the world and remember, it will be a poet, not a scientist5.” Whether the world will listen to the next poet is a question that remains to be answered. In the meantime, with regard to this poet, there is much still to learn.

“Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is my NoteWorthy Show for September.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” by Paul Simon, which is, also, something of his farewell to Art Garfunkel as Garfunkel was about to leave to go to Mexico to shoot “Catch 22,” which marked the end of Simon & Garfunkel. Garfunkel majored in Architecture at Columbia, admired Wright, and suggested to Simon that he write a song about the Architect. Published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

On The Fence, #14,” the Stair way to Heaven Edition.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. Kliment Timiriazev
  2. Eight of the other eleven volumes are monographs dedicated to period of Wright’s career, the remaining 3 volumes contain preliminary studies, which I assume are part of his Archives. These books were the only way most of us could see these pieces of the Archives, except for occasional shows, until now.
  3. Controversy still surrounds whether he left or was fired by Sullivan for taking freelance commissions on the side.
  4. To read this very sorry tale, in detail, I highly recommend the book “Man About Town,” by Herbert Muschamp, who details Wright’s plans for Manhattan and efforts to overcome the powers that be. i.e Robert Moses.
  5.  As quoted in “The Star,” 1959, and “Morrow’s International Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations,” 1982, by Jonathon Green.

This Summer In “The Era of Rauschenberg”

Everyone thought it was a joke, the gallery owner included, in it’s debut in Rome. Now, the respected reviewer of a show of work by a 28 year old Artist at it’s second stop at the Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy, called it a “psychological mess.” But, he wasn’t done. After continuing in biting terms, the reviewer concluded that the work should be “thrown into the Arno (River).” Shortly thereafter, the Artist sent the reviewer a note that read, “I took your advice.” Saving five or six works to bring home to NYC, he threw the rest, discreetly, into the Arno, finding a spot where he wouldn’t be caught in the act, and doing so in a manner to prevent their re-surfacing1.

The Artist’s photos of his hanging works called “Feticci personal,” or “Personal fetishes,” displayed in his shows in Rome & Florence. One, left, shown hung on a bust. 9 of them shown hanging in a park, right. They seem to have disappeared since. Click any photo to view it full size.

His story continued…as the esteemed Calvin Tomkins tells it…

So branded an “Enfant Terrible,” “he had come back with two wicker trunks and five dollars in cash, and for a while that spring and summer he lived on the far edge of poverty. He found a loft on Fulton Street, near the fish market, a big attic space with twenty-foot ceilings but no heat or running water; the rent was fifteen dollars a month, but he talked the landlord into letting him have it for ten. A hose and bucket in the backyard served as his basin, and he bathed at friend’s apartments, sometimes surreptitiously, asking to use the bathroom and taking a lightning shower at the same time. His food budget was 15 cents a day, usually spent at Riker’s cafeteria, and supplemented by bananas he picked up on the United Fruit Company’s docks. Living that far downtown, he saw few other artists. Most of the New York artists lived in Greenwich Village then, or further uptown, and he could rarely afford the subway fare (still only a dime) to socialize.2” Shortly after, his NYC Dealer was not overly enthused about his latest paintings, so she dropped him.

So…You say you wanna be an Artist? Somehow, as bad as things got, he persevered when few would have.

44 years later, in 1997, his work filled Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum Building, spilled over to fill the Guggenheim Soho (it’s final show ever), the Ace Gallery downtown, and numerous other satellite shows in galleries around town simultaneously, in what was to my eyes at the time, and my mind since, a monumental and utterly overwhelming Retrospective, an effect not unlike seeing the incomparable Picasso Retrospective, which filled all of  MoMA in 1980, or the Rothko show at the Whitney in 1998. 64 years A.A. (After Arno), as I type, his work fills MoMA’s 4th floor (until September 17). No less than Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s just happens to fill the 3rd floor. Be careful walking by MoMA. With that much American creativity on view, the building might just levitate.

The entrance on MoMA’s 4th Floor.

Speaking about his achievement, Artist, and former partner, Jasper Johns once said he “was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso3.” In the Catalog for that Guggenheim Retrospective, Charles F. Stuckey wrote-

“Globally speaking artists and their audiences have been living since around 1950 in what might well be called the Rauschenberg Era (his cap). As we look toward the culture of the next millennium, our vantage is from atop his shoulders4.”

Wait. Stop the march of time for one second. WHO has an “Era?”

Michelangelo and Leonardo share the Renaissance, with Raphael, Titian and a host of other “Old Masters.” Rembrandt & Vermeer are part of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century that includes literally hundreds of Artists still fondly considered almost 400 years on. The Impressionists were a group. So were the Surrealists and the first generation Abstract Expressionists (though Rothko had his own name for it). Perhaps Picasso (who, early on, shared Cubism with Braque and Juan Gris) comes closest, especially in recent times. Well, Picasso is Picasso.

How did Robert Rauschenberg get from being told to throw his work into the Arno, to having an “Era” that’s lasted 50 years (to 2000), and may well still be going on, even though he passed away in 2008? This, and other questions, were foremost on my mind, during the first of 17 visits to MoMA’s 250 work retrospective, “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” and half as many to the 4 satellite shows around town, in this “Summer of Rauschenberg,” as I saw a writer call it. The other questions included- Does the show finally make the “case” for his later work? Does it finally make one for him as a major Photographer? First, putting off a look at the other shows, let’s take a look at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Outside, on the entrance wall, Photos of Rauschenberg & his friends, seen above, reinforce the message that the show features his interactions, mutual influence and collaboration with his friends, many of who happened to be brilliantly talented Artists, themselves. This is the view immediately inside those Star Trekian automatic sliding glass doors. Beam me up, Bobby.

Partial installation view of the first gallery.”Untitled (Double Rauschenberg),” c.1950, Monoprint; Exposed blueprint paper, a collaboration with Sue Weil, center, “White Painting (Seven Panel),” 1951, left and “Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, right, examples of the two bodies of work that were to come shortly after, once Rauschenberg had decided to become a Painter, not a Photographer. The “White Paintings” would inspire John Cage. Of the “Black Paintings, which had newspaper collaged on them, painted over with black paint, he said- “I was interested in getting complexity without their revealing much. In the fact that there is much to see but not much showing. I wanted to show that a painting could have the dignity of not calling attention to itself, that it could only be seen if you really looked at it5.”

“Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, Oil and newspaper on canvas, affixed to screen door.

The first room contains his earliest work (unlike the 1977 Rauschenberg Retrospective, which came to MoMA, and started with his newest work). On either side of the door, and facing it, are 3 of the Blueprint images he created with Artist, and future ex-wife, Sue Weil in 1950 & 51. They were as attention getting then as they are now, garnering the couple a 3 page spread in Life Magazine in April, 1951, in which they demonstrated their process. To the right, a wall of his early Photographs are collected, mostly done in his days at Black Mountain College, including two that were the first works by Rauschenberg to be acquired by MoMA, in 1952, six years before it would acquire anything else by the Artist.

To the right of the door, a wall of early Photographs, and the Blueprint, “Sue,” c.1950, make it easy to see why he had a hard time deciding whether to be a Photographer or a Painter. I’m not entirely sure he ever truly chose one.

To the left are his earliest non-photographic works, including his earliest surviving painting, “22 The Lily White,” c.1950, one of very few survivors from his very first show at Betty Parsons Gallery in May, 1951.

“22 The Lily White,” c.1950, Oil and graphite on canvas. The earliest surviving Rauschenberg Painting. The red star mimics those galleries put near sold items. This one didn’t sell. Perhaps viewers thought it had already been sold.

“Untitled,” 1952, Mirrors and objects in Coca-Cola box. The shape of things to come..Perhaps his first effort at blurring the lines between Painting & Sculpture he would revisit in his “Combines.” Believe it or not, at this point, he had not seen the boxes of Joseph Cornell.

Behind the pillar displaying “Double Rauschenberg,” is a Seven Panel White Painting, left, and 3 of the Black Paintings, one shown above, which came next. In the center of the space is a vitrine containing, among other artifacts, the original “score” for John Cage’s infamous “4’33,” which the “White Paintings,” which Cage was a vocal, and poetic, admirer of, were one of the inspirations for.

The most avant-garde piece of “music” ever “written”. The manuscript John Cage’s “4’33” 1952-53,, partly inspired by Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The cover is seen, left, and the actual “score,” right. Go ahead. Try it at home.

The first “performance” of Cage’s “4’33” consisted of pianist David Tudor walking on stage and sitting at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Then, he got up and walked off. It’s hard to imagine a more “avant-garde” piece of “music.” Rauschenberg’s exploration of the possibilities of materials, beyond painting, now took center stage in his work. “He thought of his work as a collaboration with materials, as he put it. He was not interested in expressing his own personality through art- ‘I feel it ought to be be much better than that,6‘”

“Dirt Painting (For John Cage),” 1953, Dirt and mold in wood box. “Painting” doesn’t get more avant-garde than this (or, his “White Paintings.”). More on this subject later.

More of the second gallery showing “Elemental Sculptures,” “Scatole Personali” 0r “Personal Boxes,” both on pedestals, the “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” right, another “White Painting,” “Tiznit,” 1953, Oil on canvas, by Cy Twombly, left corner, and the “Automobile Tire Print,” with John Cage,” 1953, in the back.

At this point, he went to Italy with Cy Twombly, culminating with the shows mentioned at the beginning, after which he returned to NYC. He decided to commence a series of Paintings using red, because white, and then black “impressed  a lot of people as aggressive, ugly, and full of the anger of negation. So, Rauschenberg “thought he had better find out whether there was any truth to these charges. He would test his own motives by turning from black and white to red, for him almost aggressive, the most difficult, the least austere color in the spectrum. [7, “Off the Wall,” P.78]” These are featured in the 3rd gallery, which includes some of his most well-known and influential works.

“Charlene,” 1954, a “Combine Painting,” and the last “Red Painting,” “Bed,” and “Rebus,” both 1955, left to right, with a column of 3 “Untitled drawings,” 1954 by Cy Twombly in between.

On the facing wall is “Minutiae,” 1954, a Combine, created as a set for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which Rauschenberg served as set, costume and lighting designer for at the time.

Something happened to Robert Rauschenberg in 1954. A number of writers have tried to explain exactly what it was. I’m not sure I understand. Whatever it was, it led to a breakthrough. He started adding more to his collages, anything was game, he said, as in “Bed,” 1955, which uses an old comforter since he had run out of canvas. Then, Red went out and was replaced with the the more neutral tones seen in “Rebus,” 1955. He had been including newspapers in his works going back to the Black Paintings, in 1951-2. At some point, around this time, he also began including photographs- found images from magazines and newspapers, etc.7 As time went on, however, he started incorporating large found objects, including an Angora goat and a Bald eagle, which, of course, grab your attention before you get to any of the details the works also include. “Among Friends,” is a very rare chance to see the two famous works that feature them, “Monogram” and “Canyon,” together. 8

Reinventing Painting, Sculpture & Drawing. “Monogram,” 1955/59 on loan from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, front, with “Gift for Apollo,” 1959, right, “Winter Pool,”left, both 1959, and “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” 1958-60, on the far wall. Some of the most revolutionary Art of the past 60 years.

“Canyon,” 1959, Combine. One of the masterpieces of post WW2 Art. Rauschenberg on the Ganymede myth, with a Bald Eagle standing in for Jupiter’s Eagle, and fascinating to compare with Rembrandt’s “Abduction of Ganymede,” 1635, down to the inclusion of Rauschenberg’s Photograph of his son Christopher, on the left.

“Canyon,” 1959, is my personal favorite among his Combines (the word denotes a work that is a “Combination” of Painting and Sculpture, or as Jasper Johns said, “It’s painting playing the game of sculpture9.”) The controversial American Bald eagle’s very strange “pose,” standing on the sides of an open cardboard box, notwithstanding. It audaciously revisits the Ganymede myth, as he was doing in the Dante Illustrations (bringing a contemporary interpretation to an ancient tale) and, creating something of his own mythology, enhanced by the presence of a Rauschenberg Photo of his young son, Christopher (now a Photographer and head of the Rauschenberg Foundation), and including the cardboard box, which would become a staple Rauschenberg material (from the days before acid-free papers, adding to the conservator’s nightmare this works is). It takes the concept he realized in his “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” one step further, into a 3-D Combine. 58 years later, it’s still a thrilling, unique experience, that’s every bit as audacious as it must have been in 1959.

As they hadn’t in Italy in 1953, a sizable amount of the viewing public still didn’t take Rauschenberg seriously by the late 1950’s, and the Combines actually served to reinforce that. Standing near “Monogram” for 15 minutes on 3 different occasions, I noted the immediate reaction of at least 75% of viewers were smiles, or outright laughs. I don’t know what they wound up thinking of it after taking a closer look. Increasingly “troubled10”  by this reaction 60 years ago, in 1958, he decided to illustrate Dante’s “Inferno.” To do so would require nearly 3 years. The resulting series of “34 Illustrations,” displayed at the Leo Castelli Gallery in December, 1960, finally served to alter the public, and critical, perception of Rauschenberg. The complete series lines the back wall of this gallery, where they loom as something of a “spiritual center.” For me, their Artistic importance in his entire oeuvre cannot be overstated- so much of what was to follow can be seen in them. Including his use of Photographs, now as independent elements, standing in for many of the characters in the “Inferno,” in Rauschenberg’s unique, contemporary imaging of the story. I take a closer look at them in the “Highlights” Post, following.

The Combines and Combine Paintings lead us to a “central” gallery containing his classic Silkscreen Paintings of 1962-64, and “Oracle,” a five-part found object assemblage integrated with technology that he created with engineer Billy Klüver and 4 others between 1962-5. Rauschenberg discovered silkscreening during a 1962 visit to the studio of Andy Warhol, who had been working with the technique since 1961. Silkscreening provided the answer he had long sought- how to transfer images to canvas in good resolution. His Transfer drawing technique only taking him part of the way (though he would continue to use it when he felt it was needed through the years).

“Oracle,” 1962-65,a five-part assemblage, with wireless microphone system, concealed radios & speakers, washtub with running water, surrounded by 10 of his groundbreaking Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64

His silkscreens look nothing like Warhol’s, as can be seen below. Especially early on, Warhol took a single image and replicates it and/or varies it, using a grid. While Rauschenberg may repeat the same image up to 4 times in a work (usually varying it), he never allows it to become the central “point” of the work.

Warhol’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family),” 1962, Silkscreen on canvas, along side Rauschenberg’s early Silkscreen Painting, “Crocus,” 1962

Rauschenberg’s insatiable creativity led him to move forward, so the period he made these Silkscreen Paintings lasted only from 1962-64. Though he used Abstract Expressionist techniques (his work is characterized by his use of everything & all techniques), they complete his moving beyond the style of Abstract Expressionism, something he began working towards doing in the early 1950’s, to Painting wholly in his own style, and along the way, freeing Art to move on. While these works include some of his own Photographs, the featured images are, primarily still found images. As such, as great as they are, they are another step, an important one, to what his work would eventually become.

“Persimmon,” 1964, Oil and silkscreen on canvas. There’s much to say about this revolutionary work, but notice the mirror in Ruben’s Venus, which I’ll get to. Interestingly, Ruben’s Venus appears in a number of the silkscreen paintings, and curator Roni Feinstein noted they seem to be a female counterpart to JFK, who appears many times.

After becoming the first American to ever win the grand prize in Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, he would soon largely stop painting and turn his focus to performances, and the marrying of Art & Technology.

Scaling the heights of Art. Rauschenberg performing in his “Elgin Tie,” in 1964 in Stockholm. From the Hardcover edition of the show’s excellent catalog.

The latter took place in both stand alone works, and in performances, particularly “9 Evenings,” which is marvelously explored here11, and includes Rauschenberg’s contribution, “Open Score.” The massive “Mud Muse,” which I’ve seen described as an experience akin to a visit to Yellowstone, is one stand alone work that is certainly popular with younger viewers. A monumental feat of installation considering the work holds 8,000 pounds of “listening” Bentonite mud,  with embedded sensors that cause the mud to react with the music being played on the control unit nearby. On loan from the Moderna Museet, Sweden, it’s one of the most ambitious and technologically complex works Rauschenberg ever made, and is making it’s first NYC appearance since Rauschenberg completed it here in 1971.

Now, I’ve seen everything. “Mud Muse,” 1968-71, 8,000 pounds of Bentonite mixed with water, in action.

From there, the show moves through his “Cardboards” (sculptures made from found cardboard boxes), the famous “Son Aqua (Venetian),” 1973, with it’s water filled bathtub, and works inspired by trips to India, before getting to the penultimate, large gallery of later works.

“Sor Aqua (Venetian),” 1973, Water-filled bathtub, rope, metal, wood and glass jug. Rauschenberg continued to use found objects, like these, his entire career, even after he could afford traditional supplies. “Gifts from the Street,” he called them. After a while of looking at this, it hit me- There’s no drain in the bathtub. Maybe that’s why it’s owner threw it out, to become a Rauschenberg found object. A guard told me he called the metal on wood structure above, “The Angel.”

The large gallery of later works includes”Hiccups,” 1978, the horizontal rows, left & right, joined by zippers,”Glacial Decoy,” the collaboration with Trisha Brown (black and white photos, left), “Triathlon,” 2005, from “Scenarios,” the color painting, left of center, the latest work here, and “For A Friend And Crazy Kat (Spread),” 1976, along with a few examples from his “Gluts” series of found metal objects & signs. I will long wonder about what was omitted from this gallery.

The large gallery of later work, above, includes a very wide range of pieces that attest to some of the incredibly wide range of materials and styles Rauschenberg worked in. It highlights the fact that he continued to use found materials even when he could well afford art store materials. This was one of his ways of bringing “life” into his work, which he felt was essential in Art. Though not nearly as well known as the earlier periods of his work, there are a number of major works on view here, too. To my eyes, “Mirthday Man,” from his “Anagrams” series, Inkjet dye and pigment transfer on polylaminate (center, on the wall in the photo below), created on the Artist’s 72nd Birthday, in 1997, is one. “Booster,” a print from 1967, to it’s right, is as well.

“Urban Katydid, (Glut),” 1987, Riveted street signs on stainless steel,, front, “Mirthday Man,” 1997, Inkjet dye & pigment transfer created on his 72nd Birthday, center, and “Booster,” 1967, Lithograph & screen print, right, end the gallery of late works. The latter two feature almost life size X-rays of Rauschenberg. Both are among his major works in my opinion.

Partially seen in the last gallery photo, on the back wall to the left, and below, are black & white photos that form the backdrop for Rauschenberg’s collaboration with the late Trisha Brown called “Glacial Decoy,” 1979, in an installation by Charles Atlas, who worked with Rauschenberg. The piece comes closest to showing Rauschenberg’s later Photography, cleverly getting 620 examples of it in the show, though the images move one space from left to right every 4 seconds. The smaller color screen hanging in front shows video of a performance of the work from 2009 at BAM. All the way around, this is a terrific work, though if you want to focus on the Photos, you have 16 seconds to ponder each one before it disappears. The performance is, also, amazing. The installation? I’m not so sure. Sitting directly in front of the transparent hanging color screen, it’s a bit hard to make out everything that’s going on onstage since the large black and white photos on the back wall shine through. Though they are in the same sequence as they  are in the background of the performance, they’re in a different scale and so it serves to make it hard to see the screen. The resulting effect is somewhat strange. I found it better to see, standing quite a bit off to the side, as below.

“Glacial Decoy,” 1979, with 620 Photographs that scroll from left to right in 4 second segments & costumes by Rauschenberg, choreography by Trisha Brown. Interestingly installed by Charles Atlas, who worked with Rauschenberg.

The view directly in front of “Glacial Decoy.” The background of the on-screen performance is synched to the large Photos on the back wall, but they’re in a different scale, and they are both moving to the right every 4 seconds.

As with his fondness for found objects and Photography, Rauschenberg continued to refine and develop his techniques from the beginning to the end, as we see in “Holiday Ruse (Night Shade),” 1991, a captivating work, which has a look that seems to harken back to his “Black Paintings” (like “Untitled (Black Painting),” 1952-3, shown near the beginning), bringing them full-circle, with black images layered under black paint requiring a very close look to make them out.

“Holiday Ruse (Night Shade),” 1991, Screenprint chemical-resistant varnish, water and Aluma-Black

Also noteworthy, among the “Gluts,” works made of found street signs and other metal objects, “Mercury Zero Summer (Glut),” 1987, an electric fan with metal “wing,” an ecology-themed work, stood out. Finally, “Triathlon (Scenario)” 2005, Inkjet pigment transfer on polylaminate, from one of his final series, “Scenarios,” immediately “looks different,” than all that’s come before, with each of it’s Photos given their own place, and not being layered as earlier, with added prominence intriguingly given to white space, the overall effect is striking. Finally, Photos, in stunning clarity, stand to speak on their own as “characters” in the whole. The three images of the hand with the sphere, left, remind me of the repeated/slightly altered birds in “Overdrive,” and other Silkscreen Paintings, and masterfully unify the composition horizontally. Interestingly, since his right (Painting & Photographing) hand had been paralyzed in a stroke a few years earlier, and he could no longer take Photos, he had to, again, use the Photos of others (possibly under his direction at times), as he had done when he first started to use Photos, in the 1950’s.

“Triathlon (Scenarios),” 2005, from 3 years before his passing is the latest work in the show.

The show concludes with a room dedicated to R.O.C.I., the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, “a tangible expression of Rauschenberg’s long-term commitment to human rights and to the freedom of artistic expression,12,” a self-funded collaboration with Artists in 10 countries that Rauschenberg was extremely dedicated to, even mortgaging his homes, and selling his vaunted Art collection to fund. Rauschenberg took the term “action painting,” first coined to describe the technique of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, and others, literally. For him, it meant ethical action, as well. Thist took many forms during his career. As Barbara Rose said about him, he was “among the last artists to believe that art can change the world.13

The final gallery contains 12 Posters for R.O.C.I.- the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, 1985-91, along with 3 videos shot in Mexico, Cuba and China. 10 countries are represented here.

Though work by Rauschenberg has been in 152 shows at the Museum, only ONCE before has MoMA presented a retrospective of his work- FORTY years ago, in 1977. That show originated at the National Collection of Fine Arts (associated with the Smithsonian) and was curated by it’s Walter Hopps. “Among Friends,” is co-produced by MoMA and the Tate Modern, London, where it appeared under the title “Robert Rauschenberg.” So, this is the FIRST large show devoted to Rauschenberg that MoMA has been credited with creating. In fact, of those 152 shows I mentioned, only 4 had his name in the title- this is number five14. For someone so important and influential, I find this most puzzling. In fact, it’s only been fairly recently that MoMA has begun to fill in some of the substantial gaps in their Rauschenberg holdings, acquiring “Rebus,” one of his most important Combine Paintings, “Canyon,” in 2012, one of the most important Combines, and the now classic Silkscreen Painting, “Overdrive,” 1963, (seen in far left in the photo of the Silkscreen Paintings with “Oracle,” above) in 2013.

“Rebus,” 1955, Combine painting. The info label says it’s a “promised gift,” but Calvin Tomkins says MoMA paid 30 million dollars for it. (“Off the Wall,” P.282) This would be most interesting as MoMA’s Alfred Barr was offered “Rebus” in 1963 but he declined. (ibid.).

My reaction to “Among Friends” was tinged with a bit of disappointment- Though the early galleries, up through the “Mud Muse”/’9 Evenings,” 1965, are extraordinary. Stories abounded of curators bringing in “people who were there” to recreate how works had been originally displayed, complimenting major loans, like “Charlene,” “Monogram,” among many more. After 1965, I felt the show “thinned out.” The huge, penultimate gallery of his late works (a period I believe is very under-appreciated), left me wondering why it had so much empty space. In fact, I can’t quite recall seeing anything like it in a major show. Part of the reason is “Among Friends” attempts to integrate larger videos of performances right in the show, as opposed to having separate rooms for them (as MoMA did with “Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” last year). The spot chosen for “Glacial Decoy’s” installation left a large corner completely dark and empty. As nice as it is to see all of “Hiccups,” 1978, a beautiful work consisting of 97 solvent transfers (an “update of his “Transfer Technique”) on paper panels held together by zippers, so it can be endlessly rearranged. (Rauschenberg may have employed his monter, Dora, to attach the zippers, David White told me.) Taking up the better part of 2 long walls, I was left feeling that space could have been put to better use, and “Hiccups” displayed in another manner, as it has been in the past.

Another view of the later works gallery shows a lot of open floor space, and on the middle right, behind Charles Atlas hanging video screen for “Glacial Decoy,” which is in the center of the room, a dark, empty corner. An interesting installation, I’m not sure was entirely successful, but should it have been mounted elsewhere?

Rauschenberg, perhaps more than any other Artist, established what it was to be an American Artist around the world, continually going seemingly everywhere, beginning in the early 1950’s, but his travel during his later years is not mentioned in the later works gallery, including his trip to China in 1982, where he collaborated with local paper makers, and others, the trip resulting in a typically large creative output, entirely absent here. That’s one example. The travel thread is picked up in the next, and final, R.O.C.I. gallery.

Whereas the show to this point had been chronological, this room is a bit all over the map, with works ranging from 1967-2005 on view. With the only large placard, the show uses to give context, next to “Mirthday Man,” one of the last works in the show all the way on the other side of the gallery, visitors here were left a bit hanging about what was going on in Rauschenberg’s Art and the path it’s development was taking, which it’s non-chronological display didn’t help. It’s a bit of a shame. While what’s included in this gallery may serve to pique the interest of viewers to investigate it further, the overall result, I feel, is a “sketch” of what the Artist created, achieved and accomplished in this period. The result is the show feels like it progressively winds down in the later galleries, and ends on somewhat “quiet” notes. A chance to shine new light on Rauschenberg’s late period was, I feel, missed. It should be noted that, not unlike Picasso, Rauschenberg’s later works have been largely overlooked by the Art world to this point, save for a few gallery shows (including this one I wrote about in 2015)15. (Though, they have not been overlooked by Artists.) So, the other possibility is, of course, that the show’s curators do not feel the rest of his later work is important enough to be here.

With the catalog for the 1997 Guggenheim Retrospective, one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, listing 480 items, almost double the amount here, I prefer to think of this show as an “overview,” being as it wonderfully selects key works from key periods through 1965. With an Artist as prolific as Rauschenberg was (Calvin Tomkins says he created over 6,000 works by 2005, not counting multiples), it’s probably not likely a full retrospective is even possible. But? I would LOVE for someone to try!

Still, “Among Friends” is, caveats aside, important in it’s own right because it does include so many works created at key moments in his career, and because it shines a light on the importance to his work, and accomplishment, of collaboration- with other Artists, Engineers & Performers, and with the materials he was working with16 It also allows a very rare chance to see, and experience, rarely seen works involving technology (collaborations with engineers), putting “Oracle,” “Mud Muse,” and “9 Evenings” front and center, each one a major feat of museum installation. Alas, it, also leaves, until another day, a complete assessment of both his late period and his Photography (i.e. the body of Photographs he created). Regardless of what isn’t here, a careful examination of what does comprise the 250 works in “Among Friends” reveals there is no doubt whatsoever that this is an important show, a major event in Rauschenberg scholarship and appreciation, and one of the best shows of 2017.

In the early 2000’s, Rauschenberg suffered a stroke which paralyzed his right (Painting & Photography) arm. Nonetheless, he continued creating, having others take the photos, and signing his works, with difficulty, with his left hand, as here, on “Triathlon,” 2005, from “Scenarios,” one of his last series.

Speaking of friends and collaborators, another question lingers with me- As “Among Friends” beautifully details, Rauschenberg was friends early on with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Morton Feldman, among others, who were among the most avant-garde creators of the 20th Century. HOW was it possible that Robert Rauschenberg, alone among them, escaped the “avant-garde ghetto” to achieve both fame and fortune, while holding on to his integrity? I well remember when avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez was named Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic, succeeding no less than Leonard Bernstein, and how audiences voted with their feet and voices in displeasure when he performed a modern & contemporary work, as you can plainly hear on recordings of the Philharmonic broadcasts at the time. Rauschenberg, as I mentioned earlier, was actually an inspiration for the most avant-garde work of music ever “written”- John Cage’s “4’33,” 65 years later, Cage is highly respected, but, still his music is sparsely performed. Among his other friends, Morton Feldman (a major composer who remains under-known, and who Rauschenberg gave his first public performance at one of his early shows), is a cult figure who shows signs of becoming more. Even Pierre Boulez, who passed last year, is, mostly, remembered for creating the most “definitive” body of recordings of 20th Century music we have thus far, while his own music is still sparsely performed. Meanwhile…during all of this, Robert Rauschenberg had, or has, an “Era,” and had a long career that was marked with a good deal of success, however you’d care to define it, including financial. Given the “edginess” of much of his work, a fair percentage of it’s components coming from the trash, and not art supply stores, I find it absolutely remarkable.

How was Rauschenberg able to avoid the “Avant-garde ghetto?” Walking through the show, I think it is possible to “experience” the answer. As “Among Friends” highlights, collaboration may well have been key to his success. Beyond collaborating with so many gifted Artists, across realms, and collaborating with his materials, as Calvin Tomkins said- “All his work, Rauschenberg increasingly felt, was a form of collaboration with materials. He wanted to work with them, rather than to have them work for him17.”

There is more. One of his most famous quotes is “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in the gap between the two)18.” That gap also includes life being lived now…i.e. the viewer’s experience.

Have a seat. (No, Don’t!) Rauschenberg understood that his ultimate collaboration was with his viewers. He continually strove to bring them in to his works. “Pilgrim,” 1960, Combine Painting.

Rauschenberg’s most important collaboration may be with his viewers. He never forgot the experience of the viewer, something, it seems to me, most other avant-gardists of the period seemed to ignore, if not take a polar opposite approach to. Therein may lie the key. As one of them, John Cage, himself, wrote in “Silence,” “The real purpose of art was not the creation of masterpieces for the delectation of an elite class, but rather a perpetual process of discovery, which everyone could participate19.” It seems to me that this, as much as anything else, was at the heart of Rauschenberg’s approach during his entire career. As he said, “I don’t want a painting to be just an expression of my personality. I feel it ought to be much better than that20.” What’s “better than that?” He said that he wanted to create a situation  “in which there was as much room for the viewer as for the artist21.” This collaboration  takes an exceedingly wide range of forms. The “White Paintings” were intended to allow the shadows of viewers, and the atmosphere of the room to be “reflected” on their surfaces. Numerous other works, from  “Charlene,” in 1954, right through the late “Gluts” have reflective mirrors or surfaces that reflect whatever is in front to it, even the viewer themselves. This goes way back to the mirrors in the upper left corner of “Untitled,” 1952, pictured early on. And, in “Persimmon,” Ruben’s Venus holds a mirror so she can look out at us, though her back is turned.  Once you look for ways that Rauschenberg includes the viewer in his work, you’ll see it more and more- throughout his career. Like that welcoming chair in “Pilgrim,” 1960, above. But, don’t really sit in it. You know…

Another thing that becomes apparent- The more work of Robert Rauschenberg’s I look at, one thing strikes me above all others- While I loathe comparisons of anyone creative, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Artist with a better “eye” than Robert Rauschenberg. “I have a peculiar kind of focus,” he once told an interviewer. “I tend to see everything in sight22.” He was, also, one of the most creative people I’ve ever  come across. He broke all the rules, and used that eye to create his own world out of ours.

Collaboration with his viewers, itself, led to more. Some of those viewers became Artists, themselves. From what I see in the shows I attend, and have attended, particularly over the past 15 years, I would say we are still in the “Rauschenberg Era.” His influence is all around. “Bob is the wind, blowing through the art world for almost a century now, pollinating everything,” Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery said in the BBC Documentary “Robert Rauschenberg: Pop Art Pioneer.”

Regardless whether you think we are still in the “Rauschenberg Era,” or not, one thing strikes me as undeniable- Nearly 10 years after his 2008 passing, the full assessment of the achievement of Robert Rauschenberg is no where near finished. “Among Friends” is another piece, one that will be long rememeberd, towards that end.

*- The soundtrack for this Post is “Moon Rocks,” by Talking Heads, from “Speaking in Tongues,” 1983, which Robert Rauschenberg did the artwork for the limited edition release of, seen below. Another classic collaboration. NASA invited Rauschenberg to witness the launch of Apollo 11, in July, 1969.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Cover for the limited edition of Talking Heads’ “Speaking in Tongues.” No, it wasn’t in “Among Friends,” but it is in my collection.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” is my NoteWorthy Show for August. 

A second Post, which follows below, looks at highlights from “Among Friends.” Between the satellite shows- “Robert Rauschenberg: Rookery Mounds,” and “Selected Series from the 60s & 70s,” at Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl Gallery, “Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects, “Robert Rauschenberg: Outside the Box,” at Jim Kempner Fine Art, and “Susan Weil” at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, there were, also, many highlights.  The third Post, further below, focuses on them. 

January 8, 2018-All three Posts are dedicated to the memory of my friend, the late Tim Rollins. Tim and I spoke about and compared notes on these shows both of the last two times I saw him. He told me that he knew Rauschenberg, and he agreed to give me a quote about Rauschenberg for this series. But, I never got around to getting one from him. R.I.P., my friend. I hope you like them.

“On The Fence, #10, The Rausch-and-Bird Edition.” (Sorry, Bob.)

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. The story in this section is excerpted and paraphrased from Robert Rauschenberg’s work, “Autobiography,” and from Calvin Tomkins’ excellent biography of Robert Rauschenberg, “Off The Wall,” 2005, P. 72-4.
  2. “Off the Wall,” P.76
  3. Paul Schimmel “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” P.9
  4. Charles F. Stuckey in “Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective,” Guggenheim Museum, 1997, P. 31
  5. Tomkins “Off The Wall,” P.65
  6. Calvin Tomkins- “Master of Invention,” New Yorker Oct 13, 1997 P.92
  7. the Combine, “Untitled,” ca.1954, not in the show is the earliest work I’ve seen this in so far.
  8. MoMA had a chance to acquire “Monogram” early on, but Alfred Barr passed, fearing it might harbor vermin, among other reasons. “Off the Wall,” P. 282.
  9.  Everything In Sight,” Calvin Tomkins New Yorker May 23, 2005
  10. “Off the Wall,” P.143
  11. and it’s also wonderfully displayed in “Robert Rauschenberg: Early Networks” at Alden Projects
  12. raushcenbergfoundation.org
  13. Barbara Rose “Rauschenberg,” P.4
  14. Two of the those featured the “34 Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” as a set, in 1966 and 1988, the other featured his work “Soundings,” in 1969.
  15. To this point, the best overview of the later period works I’ve seen is in the Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, one of the greatest exhibition catalogs- for any show, ever produced. The caveat to that is that when it was published in 1997, he would still work for a further 11 years.
  16. Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, P.36-7.
  17. Tomkins in “Off The Wall,” P.79
  18. Rauschenberg’s statement in “16 Americans,” MoMA Exhibition Catalog, 1959
  19. “Off The Wall,” P.62
  20. “Off The Wall,” P.66
  21. “Off the Wall,” P.xv
  22. “Dore Ashton, Art News, Summer, 1958, quoted in “Off The Wall,” P.8

NoteWorthy Shows- June & July, 2017

“Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city.”*

Summer in the City brings temperatures in the 90’s and short schedules in the galleries. Still, this summer has brought with it a surprisingly high number of very good shows. While the blockbusters “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” and “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150,” both at MoMA, have captivated me, they haven’t kept me from seeing the rest. Here are some I found especially NoteWorthy.

Installation View of Room 3, and part of 2, left. On the right, “The Waves of Sea and Love,” 2017, Oil, emulsion, acrylic and lead on canvas. The other works are watercolor on paper. Click any photo to enlarge.

“Anselm Kiefer: Transition From Cool To Warm” (at Gagosian, West 21st Street)- Hold the Apocalypse. Though there were moments recently where it seemed imminent some respite was to be found at Gagosian on West 21st Street this summer in a large show of lyrical works by renowned German Artist Anselm Kiefer. Yes, Anselm Kiefer- the same Artist who sees civilization as a  shining moment between dark ages. It’s been getting harder to argue with him.

The Evening of All Days, The Day of All Evenings,” 2014, Watercolor on paper.

Maybe Mr. Kiefer’s crystal ball also told him there would be a need for a “brighter” moment this summer. Whatever the inspiration for it, it’s certainly a bit shocking that this ray of light would come from this Artist after the dark shows that he’s had recently, like this one in London this past winter. You’ll look long and hard (as I did) for signs of it at Gogosian, where female nudes, many, apparently, under the spell of Eros, lush waters and copious flora abound instead creating a plethora of beauty that lingers in the mind, while we await whatever is coming next. And I mean plethora. Over 100 pieces, probably upwards of 300 individual works.  A “Transition from Cool to Warm,” a term used to describe color temperatures by watercolorists, in more ways than one.

“For Segatini: The Bad Mothers,” 2011-12, Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, wood, metal, lead and sediment of an electrolysis on canvas. The book in the top half, and the tree branch in the bottom half, are mounted on, and extend from, the canvas. It’s hard to capture how thickly the paint is applied. All the other books in this show contain watercolors.

It’s rare, in my experience, to see a show this large that is, primarily, watercolors. Interspersed with them are some large landscapes in oils that are spread on thick and heavy, some combined with elements that include tree branches, lead and sediment of an electrolysis, like “For Segatini: The Bad Mothers,” above, which served as an echo for me me of Robert Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking “Combines,” from 60 years earlier, on view 30 blocks north at MoMA.

Installation view of the central gallery, “Klingsor’s Garden,” displaying 38 Artist’s Books, each one containing 8-12 watercolors.

Anyone who has tried watercolors quickly learns that this tricky medium tends to have a mind of its own. Kiefer long ago mastered them, as he demonstrated in 1977 in a book of them of the same name as this show. He’s been hard at work since creating a number of individual watercolors and about 48 unique Artists Books (the other 9 are in the final room) filled with them on view here. In this age of Artist’s Books, you’ll look long and hard to find even one that can match these (or their prices), each page of which contains a finished watercolor, many of the books containing 10.

Two books of watercolors in a vitrine, each bearing the same title as room, “Klingsor’s Garden.” Watercolor and pencil on plaster on paper, executed in 2016-17.

His watercolor nudes bear a passing similarity to Gustav Klimt’s and Rodin’s famous nude watercolors, but Mr. Kiefer (who says he didn’t know Rodin’s watercolors until after he had started doing his own) makes them seem as something of a jumping off point for his own striking poses, done from models, that seem to float on the gesso he uses to create an imitation marble “ground,” intertwined with snakes, or accompanied by other elements, typically water and flowers in the standalone work, which feature sunsets (as seen in the first photo), somewhat barren landscapes, with muddy roads, or seascapes.

The partially opened books lead the mind to construct whole images out of halves of different pages, as seen here. Mr Kiefer says books “are more than half of what I make…the pictures come and go away, and then a new one comes. So it is always the picture between two pages. You turn the page, you still have the other one, but you already have the new one. I like this very much because it’s not a fixed picture, it’s a transition, it’s an action.” (Interview with Gagosian, 2017)

In many of them Keifer alludes to a wide range of literature, from the bible to poetry, a good many of them being fairly obscure, with handwritten notations on the works. The central room, containing most of the vitrines of Artist’s Books filled with (mostly) nudes, is named “Klingsor’s Garden,” seen above, which I take as a reference to Wagner’s “Parsifal” where the magician Klingsor has a garden full of beautiful flower-maidens under his power.

An element of darkness creeping in? “Aurora,” 2015-17, Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, and sediment of an electrolysis on canvas, seen adjacent to 6 watercolors.

This is the first show I’ve seen of Mr. Kiefer’s, who has had a large work continuously on view in The Met’s 5th Avenue Modern & Contemporary galleries, in the same spot, for over 20 years. Having given up looking for a “darker message” in these works, I succumbed to the beauty and preferred to simply study the technique in the large oils, and enjoy the chance to see so many unique watercolors in one place. It will be interesting to see what his next show is like. While the world and universe will end one day- sooner or later (the jury being still out on civilization’s longevity), it’s the fleeting moments of beauty, and Art, that make this temporal experience special.

“Ellsworth Kelly: Last Paintings,” “Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings” & “Ray Johnson” (all at Matthew Marks Gallery)- Each of these memorable shows deserves it’s own writeup. Both Ray Johnson and Ellsworth Kelly are Artists whose importance seems to be increasing as time goes by.

In “Ray Johnson” at Matthew Marks, West 24th Street, “Untitled (David Bowie),” 1979-94 is one of a group of “silhouettes” on display, perhaps  the most complex. Ink and collage on board. The multiple dates of Mr. Johnson’s work reflect the fact that he often rethought a work many times.

In Ray Johnson’s case, substitute “being taken more seriously as time goes by.” It’s about time. Mr. Johnson studied at Black Mountain College with Artist, and legendary teacher, Josef Albers, and Robert Motherwell, while Rauschenberg, John Cage, and others, were there in the late 1940’s heyday of that legendary institution. After burning his early paintings, possibly to get out from under the cloud of his illustrious teachers, he became something of a “shadow figure” in the Art world, though he seemed to know almost everyone in it. He started the Mail Art movement, and the New York Correspondence (or “dance”) School, and worked, mostly secretly, on collages. After his tragic and mysterious death, a suicide (or “Rayocide,” as Mark Bloch called it, which many considered to be his final “performance,” in a life that had been full of performances, like his “Nothings” earlier on), a wonderful 2002 documentary, “How To Draw A Bunny,” seems to have begun a reassessment/fuller appreciation of Mr. Johnson’s work that is, finally, seeing it loom larger than his large, unique/endlessly quirky personality. This show consists of an excellent cross section of those collages, some doing double duty as Mail Art, and two other works that defy easy description, one seen below, the other further down.

Iinstallation View of the second gallery (with gallery #3 and 4 ahead), showing the “Candy Darling Cast,” 1970- of her face, complete with fabulous eyelashes, in it’s clear carry bag, center.

“Untitled (Self Portrait/Dance Diagram), 1992, Collage on board (double sided). The shoes are reminiscent of the ears on the Bunnies with long squishy noses that are Mr. Johnson’s “trademark.”

Ray Johnson was a unique Artist who was a Master of graphic design in my eyes, and still ahead of his time. He was a vital part of the NYC Artist community, until he opted to drop out of it, and NYC, moving to Long Island, and finally to Locust Valley, NY, where he lived as a recluse, like his friend, Joseph Cornell. He stopped showing, or selling, his work, other than continuing to mail some of it. Some see him as a precursor of “Pop art,” because of his use of celebrity portraits before Warhol (who he met in 1956), and benday dots before Roy Lichtenstein. He was also fond on including his own portrait in his work, and these are the works I find among his most engrossing given his reclusiveness. Every time I saw someone posing for a selfie in front of one of them, I couldn’t help wonder what Mr. Johnson would make of it. email and instant messages don’t have the charm of actual mail, or it’s creative possibilities. It’s a shame that it’s now unlikely another “Mail Artist” will come along to further what Ray Johnson started in this “medium.” It may have ended with him (or, “Post-Secret.”)

In this “Summer of Rauschenberg” in NYC, as I saw one writer aptly call it, Ray Johnson is not forgotten. In 1955, Rauschenberg was invited to participate in the Stable Gallery Annual. Artists had been allowed to propose new artists for the following years’ exhibition, but they changed the rule. To circumvent this, Rauschenberg asked Jasper Johns, his former wife/Artist Sue Weill and Johnson to each create a piece that he would install inside of his piece, thereby getting them in the show. Johnson’s contribution didn’t reach Rauschenberg in time to be included. “Short Circuit,” Rauschenberg’s resulting piece, and it’s circuitous story, are included in the MoMA Rauschenberg show. In Calvin Tomkins’ Rauschenberg biography, “Off The Wall,” Tomkins says that in 1955, he asked his friend Johnson to contribute to it in because he was “another young Artist who was unjustly neglected[P. 121].” 62 years later, the world is still catching up.

‘Untitled (Dali/Courbet/Dear Marilyn Monroe),” 1975-94, Ink and collage on board. One of a group of collages that are variations on Dali’s “Crucifixion.”

“A Shoe (John Cage Shoes),” 1977. Mixed media. Johnson met composer John Cage at Black Mountain College, and later lived in the same building with him in NYC. Both were parts of the Artist circle that included Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Morton Feldman, Merce Cunningham and Rauschenberg. What any of this has to do with these shoes? I have no idea.

John Cage, appears again, next to Picasso, across from Rene Magritte on top of the bottom half of a Photo Photo Portrait of Ray Johnson and the inscription “DONALD TRU” under. Could this be another piece referencing Donald Trump from years ago (this one, 1972), like Raymond Pettibon’s piece seen earlier this year from _____? “Untitled (Cage, Picasso, Magritte, Donald Tru),” 1972-90, Ink and collage on board.

At Matthew Marks on West 22nd, Ellsworth Kelly’s 9 Last Paintings, and a selection of 16 of his beautiful Plant Drawings spanning almost 60 years, occupied adjacent galleries. Kelly, seemed to be on a lifelong mission to “free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it, so that it has a clarity and measure within itself of it’s part (angles, curves, edges and mass), and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds it’s own space and always demands it’s freedom and separateness.” as he said. Included in the seminal 1959MoMA show, “Sixteen Americans,” along with Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Jay De Feo, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg, his career lasted a long time. As a result, it’s sometimes easy to overlook his work, and that would be our loss, especially in these wonderful last works.

“Ellsworth Kelly: Last Paintings. This work is “Spectrum IX,” 2014, Acrylic on canvas, twelve joined panels, 107 x 96 inches

Installation view of “White Diagonal Curve,” 2015, Oil on canvas, 52 x 120 inches

Installation view of “Diptych: Green Blue,” 2015, Oil on canvas, two panels, 80 x 114 inches.

Installation view of “White Form Over Black,” 2015, Oil on canvas, two joined panels, 75 x 87 inches.

One look at his marvelous Flower Drawings, and I was transported back to my first encounter of them in a mesmerizing show at The Met in 2012. They still leave me wondering “Why hadn’t I seen anyone do this before?” And, I still haven’t. They are true to the statement quoted earlier, though they are more easily “seen” to be based on real objects, though real-life observations were at the heart of his abstractions, as well. As such, these two side-by-side shows provided a rare chance to compare two, seemingly quite different aspects of his work, and find the commonality. They share that zen-like essence, this time of line, rather than shape and color, like the last Paintings. Both, in relation to space.

Next door to “Last Paintings,” the entrance to “Plant Drawings”

From the  catalog for this show.

Installation view.

“Peony,” 1982, Graphite on paper, 30 x 40 inches.

Each shows is accompanied by it’s own wonderful catalog, adding to the line of excellent publications Matthew Marks Gallery has produced. The “Last Works” catalog includes photos by Jack Shear showing Mr. Kelly’s studio as he left it, complete with some of these very works. Touching and profound. Of course, seeing them in Matthew Marks beautiful, spacious Gallery is more akin to where these works will most likely be seen henceforth- on Museum walls.

“And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city”*

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Summer In the City,” by Steve Boone, Mark & John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Carlin America Inc, BMG Rights Management, US, LLC.

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

Raymond Pettibon: Artist Americanus

Gumby had magical powers.

Gumby! You made quiet a mess on the floor of David Zwirner Gallery! Click any image for full size.

Using them, he was able to walk into books and become part of the story inside, usually solving whatever the problem was.

And, the walls, too! What? Raymond Pettibon did this? Oh. O.K.

Well, his “super human” powers really shouldn’t surprise anyone. He wasn’t human! He was 100% clay. Most people who remember Gumby remember him as a character in a kid’s TV show from the 1950’s that was reincarnated a few times over the succeeding decades. Most recently, he’s also had a reincarnation as the alter ego of Artist Raymond Pettibon1. In this “life,” he doesn’t have to walk through the walls David Zwirner to be inside the story, he’s been welcomed in as part of Pettibon’s latest show, “TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHOYRT T,”  as we shall see. Ok…ok…that’s my Gumby, above, that’s been a sidekick of mine going back to the 1990’s. But, Gumby, I mean Raymond Pettibon, really did create those paint splatters while he was creating many of the works in the show. Renown for the hand drawn & painted elements he creates for each show ranging from texts to wall drawings to murals, these splatters and drops provide mute testament to his creative process that recently occurred in this very space, possibly including this-

“No Title (It sounds powerful…)” 60.5 x 101 inches, 2017, Ink, acrylic, and collage on paper.

Fresh off the unabashed success of his blockbuster retrospective at the New Museum, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” (which I wrote about here), his first show at a major NYC Museum, some 40 years in the making, with EIGHT HUNDRED works dating back to the 1960’s filling three full floors, barely had my thoughts about it had time to begin to congeal, when along came word of a show of new works by Pettibon at David Zwirner, 519 West 19th Street, where the Artist had been holed up since January, I was told, creating many of them.

Down the rabbit hole I go, again. “No Title (Dear Master V…), 2017, “V” for Vavoom, the old cartoon sidekick, capable of only screaming his own name, is the other Pettibon alter-ego, along with my friend, Gumby. Pencil, ink, watercolor, goucache, acrylic and collage on paper.

Lo and behold, when the doors opened on Saturday evening, April 29, there they were, 99 new works, only 2 of which I saw at “A Pen…,” where they were tacked up as part of the lobby Mural, as if giving us a taste of what was to come. Talk about prolific. What’s another 100 after having just seen 800? It, also, provides an all too rare opportunity to get the “rest of the story,” from his beginnings as seen in “A Pen…” right up to the present moment.

David Zwirner Gallery, 519 West 19th Street. In it’s case, the doors roll up.

Meanwhile, “A Pen of All Work,” has now opened at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Masstricht, The Netherlands, where it will remain open until October 29, complete with it’s own brand new, hand painted, circular wall mural, in 4 parts, which may be glimpsed here. Look now while you can. Like his other murals, it will be history when the show is. But, here & now, in West Chelsea, the paint was barely dry on the walls, and the floor, too, of 519.

What was to come, as far as the new work goes, was a continuation of what we saw in “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work”- in almost every way, most importantly including quality. Also continuing are most of the themes Pettibon is known for. Well? There was only one work related to Music, perhaps surprising to those who still think of Pettibon as a “punk” Artist, even though that period was 35 years ago. On the other hand, of all things, wrestling appears to be on the ascent among his themes.

A week before the end of the show, “O.G.” Pettibon returned to graffiti his own sign.

But, before we get too far into it, let’s start outside. Above the door, in lieu of one of his usual wall drawings or murals Raymond Pettibon has simply written the show’s title. Keyword: “simply”-

Wow. He wrote this, and even I can read iyt!

Well? “The Explosive Short-T” is one version of the show’s title. On the David Zwirner website, the show is referred to as “TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHOYRT T.” That’s easy for Raymond Pettibon to say, in his unique “way with words,” something I am quite fond of doing, myself. Two titles? What gives? I was told the latter is the “official title.” Fair enough. But? What does it meayn? My research led me to the 1963 Football coaching guide by Homer Rice, a coach at the University of Oklahoma, called “The Explosive Short-T.” It’s back cover bills it as “A complete guide to building a winning football offense with the newest and most powerful variation of the T-formation.” And, compared to the massive “A Pen…” it is short-er.

The cover of Home Rice’s rare 1963 book. I don’t think he suspected his title would also be that of an NYC Art show 54 years later!

I know what you’re thinking- “Of course!” Further adding to the intrigue of the title, among the works inside pinned, (yes, Art, some of which was priced at $150,000.00 per, was all pinned to the walls), Raymond Pettibon, sports aficionado, has depicted the following sports (and in parenthesis how many times each in this show). For those of you keeping score at home, my count by sport is-

-Baseball (4)

-Wrestling (3. One could be boxing, but I think it’s wresting.)

-Surfing & Waves (2. 1 of waves, 1 of surfers changing their clothes)

-Football (None)

“No title (The false thread…,)”,…is easily found,” it concludes. All works are by 2017, Ink and acrylic on paper, unless noted.

Ok, so if the show’s title is a Football reference and there’s no football to be seen, what does it have to do with the 99 Art works on display? Unless it’s a “false thread?” I don’t claim to have any “answers” when it comes to the work of Raymond Pettibon. I just enjoy pondering what his work says to me each time I look. Not willing to give up on this “thread” so quickly, I chose to take the “formation” part literally, and see what the groups (the formations) the work is arranged in might offer.

I decided to focus on this group of 11 works.

The first thing that struck me about the curating of this show was a major difference with the New Museum Retrospective, which was arranged by themes throughout it’s 3 floors. This show is not, as far as I can tell. I asked who was responsible for the arrangement and the answer I got from the staff was Pettibon and David Zwirner. I’ll go with that. It’s hard for me to imagine the Artist didn’t have a hand in it. Afterall, he had been in this space working, and he did paint the title over the door, and? The grouping is as interesting to consider as the individual works they consist of. But, I must bear in mind what Pettibon said in 1999-

“When I hang a show, for the most part, it’s usually just as well to put up the drawings randomly, because that’s the nature of the work. There are dissociations and attachments and the mind will fill in the blanks. Beyond that, it becomes overly fussy and contrived. So just about any way the work is hung, really, it’ll work.”

Yes, my mind couldn’t help but to “fill in the blanks,” helping to see the combinations as “explosive.” Take the group, above, for example. Right smack dab in the upper middle is a work, who’s upper thought bubble says-

Detail of “No Title (Was there any…),” Ink and acrylic on paper. It could be my mantra.

But then, the “kicker.” Under a pile of black lines, the words “Was there any going back on that? It seem’d ready to unravel.” What do they refer to? Slightly higher, on the left, is a skull, with a thought bubble that reads “Little Cloud That Cares.” Two brains, one in a skull, connoting a “dead” brain, and one, of an apparently “live” brain, without a skull, both with thought bubbles. On the left side, directly under the “Cloud That Cares” is a drawing of 2 Baseball players. Bo Billinsky and Dean Chance. During the opening, on April 29, Raymond Pettibon told me that his son, Bo, who was in attendance, was named after Bo Belinsky. Bo Belinsky, was a 6′ 2 left-handed starting pitcher for the L.A. Angels, from 1962-64, when his record was 21 wins and 28 loses. An interesting choice, to say the least.

Pettibon’s son’s namesake, alongside his own favorite player. “No Title (And then other…),” Pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache and acrylic on paper.

He also told me that Dean Chance was his favorite player, so (my interpretation) their dual portrait is a way of putting himself and his son into a work. (The Artist also has a dog named Boo.) Bo Pettibon announced to all who would listen that he wanted to become an Artist. In an interview with Dan Redding, Raymond Pettibon said that he looked forward to collaborating with Bo. So? This piece may also be a harbinger of Raymond Pettibon’s future work. It appears to me, though, this this is a rare work that may have some personal relevance to Raymond Pettibon. It’s fascinating to me how very few of his works that I’ve seen seem do. It seems to me his work is more about “self,” not about “him self.”

Surrounding these 3 works are pieces that speak of luck- good (below, center, a skier apparently narrowly misses a tree), bad (upper right- a bomber on fire, seemingly about to crash), faith (a bible, or bibles, seemingly falling),  fate (a naturalist monitors the progress of his disease in a piece that seems to equate the progression of a disease to a pen that finally produces ink). Beneath it is a most interesting image. Gumby/Pettibon and Shakespeare are joined by a quintet of 4 men and a woman. The man in the center holds what appears to be a frame. The text reads, “As withouyt the advantage of educatioyn or acquaintance among them.” The man holding the frames looks like he could be Churchill, a passionate painter throughout his life, to me. The man to his left (the far right) could be Stalin. The man “Churchill” shows what’s in the frame to (F.D.R.?) appears to be startled by it, as does the man looking over his shoulder at it. Gumby, “represents me as an alter ego,” he said on PBS’ Art21. Yet, both he, and Shakespeare have blank expressions, appearing as witnesses, and either the piece in the frame is blank, if it’s facing us, or hidden, if it’s not. Either way? No matter how long we look at it, it will never become clear.

“No Title (Rereading Pettibon)”

Fascinatingly, to it’s immediate right is an image of what might be a demon, with a red tooth, who is busy “Rereading Pettibon,” something many viewers to his New Museum Retrospective had just been busy doing, revisiting his work going back decades.

“No Title (Whipper paused a…)” Ink, watercolor and acrylic on paper.

The final piece in this section’s bottom left features a pitcher nicknamed “Whipper,” who, it says, won 19 games in 1960. The only major leaguer to win 19 games in 1960 was Lew Burdette, but he lost 13 games, not 8 as it says on the drawing, and his lifetime record was 203 wins and 144 loses (not 161-127). So? Whipper may be fictional, or a non-major leaguer. Still, I find it, another, compelling Baseball work. While so much ink is devoted to Raymond Pettibon- “punk Artist,” very little is devoted to Raymond Pettibon- extraordinary “Baseball Artist.” Which leads me to ponder- Who is the OTHER great Baseball Artist?

So, the right half of this wall is dark with war, death, disease, demons, and trying to maintain your sense of self during this. In the middle might be luck- at writing one good thought or narrowly escaping serious injury/death. On the left side is an image of the Washington Monument with text reading “There is no other that in comparison with it stands,” but it mirrors the narrowly missed tree to it’s immediate right, and above everything else on this wall is a skull, a symbol of death, that somehow manages to produce a thought bubble “Little cloud that cares.” Clouds care? The dead have thoughts? I’m deeply inside the rabbit hole now. I make no claim to “understand” any of them. But? I just can’t stop looking at them, and thinking about them.

This is only one section of the show- 11 works. It leaves 88 others to consider! Don’t worry. Every now and then I remind myself that this is a Blog, not a Book, so I’m not going to go through all the rest. But, I will show a few others.

Installation view of ALL of “Raymond Pettibon: TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHOYRT T” at David Zwirner. The wall I was speaking about is just to the right of the left corner.

Of the other noteworthy works here is, of course, the huge Wave piece shown earlier, which, though 4 of his 5 highest selling works at auction to date have been large Surfer/Wave pieces (one sold for 1.5 million dollars), this one is mounted all the way in the back corner, high on the wall. So high, it’s very hard read the small text fragments among the collaged waves. Of course, it was sold early in the show’s run (if not before it opened), and most likely was the most expensive piece in the show. Well? It’s safer high up. It also does give the effect of looking up at a huge wave.

The intriguing rear wall and right corner of the show. A show of power- natural, and man made.

In his oeuvre, Pettibon’s surf pieces are like the “golden section” in a piece of Music-they live at the center of his universe. He’s said he enjoys Drawing waves more than anything else. It shows. This one is displayed above leftover paint splatters, and the portraits of two tyrants- Stalin, looking like he was the target of a paint gun war, and to his right, J. Edgar Hoover, cornered. For a change. Around the corner, on a wall by himself, hangs the only Self Portrait of the Artist, looking “cautiously” out on all he has wrought. Well, he not only can’t see Stalin or J. Edgar from there- he has his “back” to them.

“No title (I glance cautiously around the room…)” And…

moving cautiously around it, too. Raymond Pettibon enters his show at the opening, April 29, with a cane. That small figure running in the distance is his son, Bo.

Hobbled by what he said was a bout of gout, the Artist, himself, nonetheless persevered and arrived to surprise visitors to the opening, including yours truly, with his presence, and I had the privilege to meet him and speak with him.

Raymond Pettibon at the opening, April 29, while we were chatting.

We spoke about a range of things after I remarked that since he is associated with many things California, I was still getting used to him being a New Yorker, which he has been for six years already. We then touched on the Biennial, Owls (which appear fairly often in his work. He then proceeded to sketch this one-),

Baseball (as I mentioned, above), and some of the books about his work. His son, Bo, came by and drew in a fan’s book his father was signing, and announced to all present his intention to become an Artist. Pettibon has spoken about looking forward to collaborating with Bo, so Craig? Hang on to that drawing! Bare chested, Bo then proceeded to run out to the sidewalk and take startled passersby by the arm to try and get them to come and “see Daddy’s show.” As I commented to the staff, you can’t buy that kind of marketing!

If you thought the first group of 11 was “complex,” 42 works line the very long eastern wall in one group. At the far left is a work about the beginning of life (shown below), at the far right, one about death (JFK’s). Smack in the middle is a large cathedral piece, with a UFO work over it, and one, perhaps, about suicide, and the luck of dice to their right.

The piece on the far left side, above. “No Title (Think What It Took…) Ink and acrylic on paper.

Detail of the text. If I had the money, I might buy this one.

It’s too early to calculate Raymond Pettibon’s influence because it’s still in the process of spreading, something which no doubt surprises many who only know him as a “punk Artist.” His has become a world-wide presence, with shows going on in Moscow, and “A Pen of All Work” reinstalled in the Netherlands as I write this. Over the past 40 years, he’s gone from being a shadowy background figure, creating fliers, record covers, zines and Artist’s Books, to being an established Artist in the world of “Fine Art,” who’s work is now being shown, more and more, in Museums. Around the world, in press releases, he’s invariably referred to as an “American Artist.” “Artist Americanus” is my play on “Homo Americanus,” the title of a large traveling European show of his work last year (which I take to mean “American Male”). When I think of that term in a “classic” sense, it means thinking for yourself, making up your own mind, and expressing yourself in your Art.

Regardless of whatever “meaning” you take from one of his works, Pettibon is an Artist who has maintained a remarkably consistent creative path since, at least, the mid- 1970’s. He’s said in interviews that he’s worked like this (putting words to drawn images) since he was a small child. Right now, 40 years on, Pettibon’s influence can already be seen even beyond his work, itself. The “alternative means” he used to get (fliers, zines, record covers, Artist’s Books, et al) his work seen2 is being followed by countless others, as can be seen at New York’s “Printed Matter.”

New York’s renowned “Printed Matter,” where the work of some Artists following in Pettibon’s footsteps is available, has over 15,000 titles in stock.

I, too, have been inspired by his example with this site, and I thanked Pettibon for the “inspiration,” when we parted. I’m not sure he knew what I meant. Beyond this, his other great influence is helping Drawing to be reborn in Modern & Contemporary Art. Artist (and Pettibon collaborator), Marcel Dzama credits Pettibon for being the Artist who put Drawing on the map in Contemporary Art3, and getting it taken “as seriously” as “finished works of Art,” and not as preliminary works for a Painting. That, too, seems like it’s already ancient history.

Inside “Printed Matter,” a table features recent Drawing books. A few years back, you’d look long and hard to see books of Contemporary Drawing.

 Some 900 works in to exploring his work and career Raymond Pettibon remains a fascinating mystery for me as he probably is for almost anyone else interested in his work. Much of his Art seemingly defies (easy) “understanding.” Regarding the “crypticness” of his work, in an interview, he said, “I think if I brought you through the work you’d see what I was trying to get at. You can say it’s open-minded, whatever, but it’s never a random association between the language and the image. There’s always a reason.” I keep looking for it, and more importantly, thinking about it, and whatever the topic(s) he’s addressing. That a good many of his topics relate to either current events, American History (previously drawn from a distance of time, because history tends to repeat, as he has said, and more recently including almost current events), or social & cultural history, give them an ongoing relevance, and importance that is rare in Art seen in Museums these days.  It’s taken him almost 40 years to get there. Fittingly, Raymond Pettibon turned 60 today, June 17, as I write this. Happy Birthday!

Sorry. Gumby insisted on a selfie.

When “A Pen…” opened at the New Museum, it was February 8th. 900 works later, when the Zwirner show ended, it was June 24! Most of 5 straight months of Raymond Pettibon! Still? I was already thinking- When’s the next show? It turns out I didn’t have to wait long. On June 27th, David Zwirner opened the “Thread Benefit Exhibition,” featuring 26 works donated by gallery Artists, a few doors west at 533 West 19th Street.  It includes this piece by Raymond Pettibon,

“No title (I luyv y’all…), 2014, “You Don’t Love me?” Ink, graphite, and acrylic on paper. Seen at the June 27th opening of “Thread.”

which speaks for itself. Or? Does it. I’ve been “trained” to look twice. Thus far, it strikes me as a terrific culmination to this remarkable “half year of Pettibon, NYC.”

The Artist didn’t appear, at least while I was there, that night. Leaving, I passed by 519, where “TH’ EXPLOSIV…” had ended 3 days before. I looked in and saw the wall he hand painted had already been painted over in preparation for whatever is going in there next. I turned the corner onto 10th Avenue, and a few hundred feet down, I saw this, propped up against the wall…

Unknown Artist, “I Love You.” Dated June 27, 2017 along the bottom, Unknown medium, seen on 10th Avenue, June 27, 2017,

What? The show had been open all of one hour, and already someone had copied Pettibon and had it up for sale on the street! WHOA. I was reminded of this quote of his- “I’ve never really thought of it in this way, but it is kind of cool to be the Gucci of my kind of work. I mean that in the way that Gucci and all those type of trademarks can be cheaply copied and reproduced like my comic books or flyers. I don’t get any royalties from that. I haven’t got a cent from SST ever, and I don’t get any royalties from the tattoo trade. The tattoos are when it becomes an even more substantial brand because it’s stuck on someone permanently. And if someone wants it off, then the mother has to go through even more pain to have it taken off than he did to put it on,” he said here.

I’m not the only one who owes Raymond Pettibon a “Thank you,” at least, for the inspiration.

“Raymond Pettibon: TH’ EXPLOSIYV SHOYRT T” is my NoteWorthy Show for June, 2017.
My thanks to Craig, Anisa & Caslon of David Zwirner for their assistance, and forbearance, during my dozen or so visits. 

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Don’t Believe The Hype,” by Public Enemy, for all those who hear that Pettibon is a “punk Artist.” And, because Pettibon loves hip-hop, some East Coast.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. “Gumby represents an alter ego for my work as an artist. He represents me as an alter ego. There’s actually a lot more to that figure than just ninety-eight ounces of clay or whatever. Art Clokey was into Zen Buddhism and into a lot of pretty deep stuff for Saturday morning cartoons. Clokey was a pretty hip figure in Los Angeles and in the counterculture of the ’60s and the ’50s—the beatniks and the hippies. I have a lot of respect and affection for him, and for Pokey as well, and Goo, Prickle, and even the Blockheads. One other thing that I’ve never thought of—that Gumby does for me in some of his cartoons—is he goes into a biography or historical book and he interacts with real figures from the past: George Washington or whatever. And I tend to do that in my work and in my videos, as well.” From Art21.
  2. Not always successfully. He’s said repeatedly he wound up giving away or destroying most of the copies of his self published early books, making them very rare today.
  3. Along with William Kentridge, R. Crumb, Robert Longo, and a few others.

NoteWorthy Shows: March Through May, 2017

Catching up from my March computer meltdown. To recap, AIPAD-The Photography Show, was my NoteWorthy Show for March, “Raymond Pettibon: A Pen of All Work” at the New Museum for April, “Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe for May. Here are some other “NoteWorthy Shows” I saw from March through May (in no particular order). Better late than never…especially where these fine shows are concerned. 

“Elliott Hundley: Dust Over Everything” (@ Andrea Rosen Gallery)- According to Siri there were 41 days between January 1 and February 10, during which Elliott Hundley must have been THE busiest man on the planet creating the 22 works for this show, which opened on February 10. He must not have eaten, slept, or gone to the food store, saving every second of every day to create what are the most intricate works I’ve seen in years, each one of which is dated “2017.”

“the song dissolves,” Paper, oil, pins, fabric, foam and linen over panel, 11 3/8 x 14 3/8 x 2 3/4 inches. Click any image to enlarge.

Side view.

Theatrical…Intimate…Grand…Microscopic…Bombastic…Quotidian…There are as many styles as there are works, and almost as many materials listed having been used on them. Ok. He probably had (some) help creating these. Practically? I get that. But, you can’t see it. Every single detail seems to spring from the same source- a seemingly boundless imagination that shows us a different side of it in each piece.

“Dust Over Everything,” Paper, oil, plastic, fabric, pins, foam and linen over panel. 36 1/4 x 24 1/4 x 6.

And the pins! I feel for whoever has to count them when these works wind up in Museums. “Countless” is how I’d describe them. It must have taken an army of acupuncturists a week to do even one of these works, because they are so extraordinarily well placed I found myself continually looking at the works from a 45 degree angle so I could appreciate them all. They’re such a tour de force as to be, a bit, distracting. I wondered what order they were placed in, which took away valuable moments I should have spent pondering the work as a whole (before getting to the details.) They are a bit like veil on a stage that you have to look through (after you’re done appreciating them) to ponder all that’s under them. But, they are not present in every work here. What’s under them struck me as being a whole life told in episodes, glimpses, memories and relics.

“Gallows Bird,” Oil and paper on linen, 80 1/8 x 96 1/4 x 1 7/8

Suffice it to say there’s, also, a life time’s worth of looking ahead for whoever buys these obsessive works- some of the freshest work I’ve seen in the first 65 days of this year, and among the densest work I’ve ever seen.

“Until the end,” Paper, oil, pins, glass, lotus, plastic, foam and linen over panel, 96 1/2 x 80 1/4 x 8 1/2

Detail of the right side. Mr. Hundley features friends & family in his work, giving them a personal depth he feels comes across to the viewer.

“Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” (@ The Met)- From the first time prehistoric man made a mark on a surface, countless billions of people down through the intervening millennia have drawn. Where is the OTHER one among them who draws, or drew, like Georges Seurat? Seurat only lived 31 years, so he didn’t get the chance to create either a lot of drawings, or a lot of paintings, so this was a very rare chance to see (mostly) his drawings, along with 2 paintings, and works by others, all more or less related to the theme of the circus, with Seurat’s “Circus Sideshow,” from The Met’s collection, as the centerpiece. How fascinating it must have been to watch him make one of these unique Drawings, let alone one of his even more remarkable paintings? So, even the otherworldly presence of Rembrandt’s “Christ Presented to the People” wasn’t enough to distract from focusing on the extremely rare opportunity to see a number of Seurat’s drawings in one place.

Looking down at the entrance for “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow”. Exactly one year ago this Robert Lehman Wing Courtyard was full of scaffolding for the false floor of the “Ghost Cathedral” of the Manus X Machina Fashion Show sat at the level of the upper floor here- a few hundred feet in diameter! Amazing.

“Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” entrance, features the titular work.

“Trombonist,” 1887-88, Conte crayon with white chalk

“At the Gaiete Rochechouart,” 1877-78, Conte crayon with gouache

“Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms,” & “Marsden Hartley’s Maine” (@ The Met Breuer)-

Meanwhile, across town, Sheena Wagstaff , The Met’s Modern & Contemporary Art Chairwoman, continues to give us unexpected shows of M&C Art at TMB, this time focusing on the late Brazilian female Artist, Lygia Pape (1927-2004), and American Painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)- two Artists who have almost nothing in common, except, perhaps, Ms. Wagstaff as a champion, and that neither has had a substantial show in NYC, for at least anytime in the recent past (as far as I know). I couldn’t escape the feeling that Ms. Pape has a style not all that unlike the great Nasreen Mohamedi, who Ms. Wagstaff chose to be the very first show of M&C Art at TMB. Mr Hartley, however, does not. “The Painter from Maine” has a strong, muscular style that is worlds away from the from the geometric abstraction Ms. Pape’s and Ms. Mohamedi’s works may seem to be at casual view. His in another part of the story of American 20th Century Art, one that is often, unfortuatley, overlooked, perhaps because it’s rare to see more than one of his works at a time. His place in the long line of important Maine Artists that runs from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer (a key influence on Hartley) through Edward Hopper to the Wyeths and Richard Estes is assured. While the opportunity to see more of these interesting Artists was most welcome, for me, these shows were equally interesting for what “more” they might reveal of Ms. Wagstaff’s direction, which, given the state of flux The Met is in at the moment, I believe in supporting.

Lygia Pape’s vision extended from paintings to sculpture to people, as seen on the screen on the left,”Divisor (Divider), 1968, performed in 1990,, which seems to mimic the effect of the wall sculpture, “Livro dos caminhos (Book of paths),” 1963-76, paint on wood,  on the right.

Lygia Pape, “Tteia, 1, C,” 1976-2004, Gold thread, light and a few staples create a haunting, shimmering vision.

Lygia Pape, “Liver do tempo (Book of time),”1961-63, A tour de force of almost endless creativity & variety in 365 tempera and acrylic on wood pieces in relief.

I particularly admire these 3 early Landscapes by Marsden Hartley done between 1907-09, with their unique, almost “Pointilistic” technique, (26 years after the Seurat’s death), which is much “softer” than his “muscular,” later landscapes, like the next one.

“The Lighthouse,” 1940-41, Oil on masonite

Perhaps the most “muscular” painting since the Mannerists.

“Romare Bearden: Bayou Fever and Related Works” (@ DC Moore Gallery)- Highlighted by 21 collages from 1979 Romare Bearden (1911-88) created for a ballet entitled “Bayou Fever” that he hoped Alvin Ailey would choreograph, they confirm Mr. Bearden’s place as a master of collage who was ahead of his time. While some works have an overt Matissean influence, everything here is uniquely Bearden, an Artist who is not seen nearly often enough and never seems to fail to impress when he is seen. I mentioned him in in my Post on his friend, Stuart Davis, and my Post on Kerry James Marshall, who selected a piece by Bearden for his “KJM Selects” section of his excellent TMB Retrospective.

Installation view. The 21 collages from “Bayou Fever,” 1979, are seen to the right.

2 works from “Bayou Fever”- “Untitled (The Conjur Woman),” left and “Untitled (The Swamp Witch, Blue-Green Lights and Conjur Woman), both Collages from 1979

“Feast,” 1969 21 x 25,” Collage

“Noah Means A New Day,” No date, Collage

“Prevalance of Ritual/Tidings,” 1964, Gelatin silver print

“Rat Bastard Protective Association” (@ Susan Inglett Gallery)- Who? The RBPA was “an inflammatory, close-knit community of Artists and Poets who lived and worked together in a building they dubbed ‘Painterland,'” in San Francisco, to quote the press release. As I wrote about last year, Bruce Conner was, somehow, new to me when I first walked through the black curtain at the entrance of the utterly amazing “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” at MoMA last year but, Susan Inglett had a long history with Bruce Conner, as I learned in speaking with her briefly, earlier this year. So, her (always excellent) gallery’s show of works by “The Rat Bastard Protection Association,” a group of San Fran Artists that included Mr. Coner was something special, and quite rare. In addition to the chance to see amazing work by Bruce Conner I’d never seen before, the show marked my first chance to see work by his Artist wife, Jean Conner, an important Artist in her own right. Add Jay DeFeo, Wallace Berman, Michael McClue to the roster and this was a small show that packed a punch, and pointed out, once again, that the East Coast needs to become much more familiar with this whole group of San Francisco based Artists, who were associated in the Rat Bastard Protection Association from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s. Up from April 27 to June 3, it anticipated the Robert Rauschenberg show now at MoMA and provides a reminder that these Artists were working strikingly similar veins at the same time, 2570 miles, as the crow flies, apart1.

Bruce Conner, “THE EGG,” 1959, Mixed media assemblage in a convex brass frame. Even his extraordinarily wide-ranging MoMA Retrospective didn’t prepare me to see this.

Bruce Conner “MARY, MOTHER OF GOD,” 1960, Charcoal on paper. Almost “conventional,” it shows little sign of the revolutionary drawings to come.

Two collages from 1960 by the overlooked Jean Conner, both titled “(ARE YOU A SPRINGMAID)

Two assemblages by Bruce Conner, “UNTITLED (DO NOT REMOVE),” 1960 and “FLOATING HEAD,” 1958-59

“Alice Neel, Uptown” (@ David Zwirner Gallery)- An increasingly beloved and respected New York Artist (she settled here at age 27, and lived here for over 50 years), her star continues to rise, though it’s taken a long time (she passed in 1984, at age 84). She always leads with her humanity, and it seems to me that that’s something that makes New York proud of her. Though one of her works was the featured/poster image for The Met Breuer’s 2016 blockbuster “Untitled: Thoughts Left Unfinished,” a perfect choice, IMHO, there hasn’t been an Alice Neel show all that recently, as far as I can recall. This one would still prove itself different even if there had been a few. For one thing it focused on work Ms. Neel did while she was living “Uptown,” in East Harlem (aka Spanish Harlem), from 1938 to 1962, and, as the press release says, it focuses on portraits of her family, friends and neighbors. The results are classic Alice Neel. Though not everything here is a major work, the breath of fresh air it provided only hints at how much pent-up longing I think there is to see more of her work.

The time has come!

The show has moved to Victoria Miro, London, where it can be seen through July 29.

Shown in two adjoining David Zwirner locations, this is one of the two entrances.

“Building in Harlem,” 1945, Oil on canvas. Ms. Neel lived in East (Spanish) Harlem from 1938-62.

“Alice Childress,” 1950, Oil on canvas. An actor who became a playwright and novelist when she found “little dramatic material that represented the lives of black women she knew,” per the show’s curator, Hilton Als.

“Two Girls,” 1954, Ink and gouache on paper.

Georgie Acre, a young Puerto Rican boy who often ran errands for Ms. Neel, seen in 4 Drawings and a Painting from 1950-58. In 1974, Mr. Arce was convicted of murder. He’s shown praying in the second Drawing from left.

“Ron Kajiwara,” 1971, Oil on canvas. A son of Japanese immigrants, he was detained in a California internment camp during WW2. He later became a design director for Vogue before dying of AIDS in 1990.

And finally, Kevin Francis Gray (@Pace, West 24th Street)- I can’t recall encountering anyone who’s doing what Mr. Gray is with “figurative” sculpture.

“Reclining Nude 1,” 2016, All works are Carrara Marble

Does he use a secret laser ray? Has he discovered how to melt marble, then work it in it’s molten state? Somehow, he’s able to make Carrara marble attain the properties of clay!

“Salamander,” 2017

Ummmm…Yes, I had to remind myself continually, after tying my hands behind my back so I wouldn’t touch them to appease my wonder… These are MARBLE!

“Reclining Nude 1,” 2016, front, and “The Aristocrat,” 2017

I find it daring, exciting, and revolutionary. Along the way, he blurs the lines between the representational and the abstract, while adding all sorts of new levels of appearance, meaning, and possibilities to “portraiture.”

Detail of “Reclining Nude II,” 2017

While some of his past works, especially his “Twelve Chambers,” 2013, group of 12 life-sized figures vaguely reminded me of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais“, these recent works appear, to me, to be a breakthrough. Is Kevin Francis Gray the successor to Rodin? He’s only 45. We’ll see where his new developments lead him. Stay tuned…he said, with bated breath.

“Heavenly bodies…”

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “It’s Quiet Uptown,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, from “Hamilton.”

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1. My fine feathered friends (aka “The Birdies”) just smirked when I said that, again, and said they stand by their prior comment on the matter, here.

Rod Penner: Brilliance, Under Cloudy Skies

“Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe is my NoteWorthy Show for May.

“Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear”*

It turns out to have been more than worth the wait. The chance discovery of Rod Penner’s rarely seen work in April, 2016, left me eager to see more of it for the past year. Finally, that chance came. Yes, I wrote about this show’s opening, and my first impressions of it, a while back, when I was also lucky to meet Mr. Penner. Having returned to see the 9 remarkable Paintings that made up “Rod Penner” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through May 26 (his first NYC show since 2013) a number of times after the April 27 opening, I realized I needed to also revisit it here because these are works that do not reveal all their secrets at first glance, and also because so little has been written about the work of Rod Penner, basically, three pieces by John Seed. Given the amazing & consistently high quality of his work, and the fact that he’s been a successful Painter for over 25 years, who’s shows routinely sell out (8 of these 9 were sold before the show opened), that’s hard to believe. This show is a great chance to get a closer look, as it represents most of the work he’s created in the past year, and because the works are related, they form a “series.” When I asked the Artist about this, he told me-

“This show is a first for me in the sense that it is a series of paintings based on photos taken on a single morning of a single town. Most of the locations are in and around the town square of San Saba, TX, and when viewed together they form a more comprehensive “portrait”, both of the town itself, and my personal experiences in this place. That being said, each painting is also meant to stand on its own.”

San Saba is about an hour north of Austin, almost smack dab in the middle of Texas. The resulting works are at once intricate and sublte, so deep, so brilliantly conceived and almost miraculously executed, I now have a feeling they will be revealing their “secrets” indefinitely.

“View of San Saba,”also 5 x 7 1/2 INCHES. The “center” of Rod Penner’s painted “neighborhood.”All works by Rod Penner, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, unless specified, seen at “Rod Penner,” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe. Click any image to see it full size and better see the detail.

When I met Mr. Penner, he spoke about the newest work in the show, “View of San Saba.” So new, it wasn’t completed in time to appear in the show’s catalog, the first book ever published on Rod Penner (and available from Ameringer McEnery Yohe, as I write this). It’s a work that a quick glance fails. I wondered about the empty spaces in the foreground, left and right. Why is there so much of it in a work that’s supposed to be a “view” of a town? It scrunches the actual town into a narrow band that accounts for maybe one third of the Painting. These empty spaces along the sides give us a sense of perspective, a sense of space that is, after all, a trade mark of Texas, I hear, which would be missing if Rod Penner had cropped the view closer to the “BUY PECANS HERE” sign, and which would also give the sign an importance he, apparently, didn’t want it to have. The feeling would be completely different. Also, doing this “sets a stage” for the rest of the composition, something Mr. Penner seems fond of doing.

And? It turns out the foreground is an extraordinarily interesting part of the work. Ok, that’s coming from a die hard Manhattanite, a true connoisseur of pavement, street, curbs, and sidewalks, someone who never sees grass. Mr. Penner told me that as the work neared completion, he became unhappy with the pavement to the front left, so he redid it. Take that, everyone who thinks he’s a so-called “photorealist,” or “hyper-realist,” someone who paints exactly and only what’s in a reference photo. First, there’s a very unusual (in real life) crack that runs directly down the very middle of the street, which serves to draw us further and further into the painting.

Detail of the pavement in the foreground, larger than actual size, reveals almost endless details, down to the reflection of the back of the Stop sign in the puddle. Interestingly, every Stop sign in these works is seen from the back. Even in reflection.

It’s an old street. The curbs are worn, where they are still there. The pavement has been patched. Well, some of it has. Water pools in holes that still need to be. Yet, for the most part, the concrete is holding together. After all these years. After all these cars, trucks, people, and whatever else travels on the roads of San Saba, Texas have passed over them. Yes. You can still get there from here.

Beyond the technical tour de force of skill on view in this, and in everything in this show, more importantly, every centimeter of it drips with character.

The skies always seem to be ominous. Sometimes a small patch of sun is fighting to make it’s way through. Maybe it will. Maybe rain is on the way. (I call theses skies “Penneresque” now when I see one). Just as long as it’s not a tornado, right? The old County Court is still standing. You can see it’s tower to the left, in the first Photo up top. Interestingly, it’s not quite as tall as the phone pole1

When I look at the finished work, the feeling of isolation, life lived, the present time, and time past (as in the patched pavement to the right in the front), and the feeling of being an outsider is reminiscent of that in works by Edward Hopper or Charles Sheeler, but not specific works. Though he has a foot in Art History, Rod Penner is an original.

But we aren’t in San Saba. We aren’t in Texas. We’re 1,744 miles away by car or 1,513 miles as the crow flies at Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery on West 22nd Street in Manhattan, NYC. An entirely different world, right? We’re not even looking at Photographs, which seems to be a reaction of some who only see these works online in, yes, Photographs, and have trouble believing someone can really paint THIS well. We’re looking at Paintings. VERY small Paintings that are either 5 by 7 1/2 inches, or 6 by 6 inches each! Acrylics on canvas. In creating these works at paperback book size, I don’t believe the purpose was to show off his extraordinary skill (which happens as a byproduct). The size brings an intimacy that makes the viewer look closely to see, and once you start looking, you’ll see more and more, which can turn the experience into something of a meditation.

“View of San Saba” is installed on one of 3 walls where the paintings look out, and on to each other. Therein lies an additional element that becomes apparent when seen together. As Mr. Penner said, each work stands alone. Yet being at this show one can’t help noticing that there’s, also, a “little world” in these 9 Paintings that comes together in “View of San Saba.” Taken as a whole, this gives a feeling of walking around a small neighborhood (typically New York comment, right?), and based on “View of San Saba,” it is walkable. No less than 5 of the buildings featured in the 8 other works here reappear in it, making it something of a centerpiece of this “series” for me.  I constructed these maps to show what I mean,

Installation View of “Rod Penner” @ Ameringer, McEnery & Yohe shows it’s a small neighborhood. The lines connect 5 individual works with “View of San Saba,” far right, where the same buildings are seen, again.

“Map” of “View of San Saba” showing the location of the 5 Buildings also shown in their own Paintings, which follows. The numbers are from the order they appear in the show, as seen in the prior Photo.

So, yes, as I said, “you can still get there from here,” if you walk straight down the street, following that center crack. Along the right, first, “Buy Pecans Here,” is the subject (and title) of a closer view of the same structure, below. Then, on it’s corner, and across the street on the right is G&R Grocery, which is seen in no less than two other works here- “G&R Grocery,” and “Armadillo Country.” And finally, a few blocks almost dead ahead (slightly left) is the building in “The Station.” Here are the five Paintings in question. There could be much to be said about each.

#1 in the “Map” above, “G & R Grocery,” 2016, 5 x 7 1/2 inches. That reminds me. G&R is also the home of Texas’ famous “Bill’s Season All,” as the sign says. I have to remember that when I need to reorder it.

NYC’s & Texas’ finest in the NighthawkNYC kitchen.

#2- “Buy Pecans Here,” 5 x 7 1/2 inches

#3 “The Station,” 6 x 6 inches. It’s foreground pavement endlessly enthralls me.

#5 “Armadillo Country” 5 x 7 1/2 inches

#4 does get a section to itself. My personal favorite among all of these works (not an easy call) is one I find endlessly fascinating, on a number of levels- “San Saba Butane.” All 6 by 6 inches of it. The right rear side of it is, also, #4 in the Map, above.

#4- “San Saba Butane,” 6 x 6 inches. Depending on the device you’re using, this photo may be close to the actual size of the Painting.

On one level, you could look at it and think about hard times, about a business that stood for a long time, carrying the hopes and dreams of it’s owner, until it finally moved elsewhere, or went under. There’s no indication of which here. What there is, it seems to me, is a masterpiece of realism in which abstract and realistic elements are weaved together so seamlessly, they achieve an almost perfect balance, each supporting the other. After all, when we see the world, our eyes see things that are abstract as well as “real” (be they reflections in windows or water, and on and on- they are everywhere once you look for them). It’a all based on a rectangular box seen at an angle that provides the basis of everything else that Mr Penner hangs on it or adds to it, and around it. One time I looked at this and thought “It’s a Robert Rauschenberg meets Anselm Kiefer structure under a “Penneresque” sky, as I named them last time, maybe with a hint of John Zurier in it, and with Lucian Freud pavement. Another time, I fancied that the historic “Battle of San Saba Butane” had been fought here, leaving Texas another monument, akin to the Alamo. But, alas, history records no such battle (as far as I know). There is, instead, a completely peaceful stillness to the building, though it’s surrounded by turbulent skies and pavement that appears almost liquified in places. To get to it’s door, you have to cross the rough, wet road in the foreground before arriving on the slightly surer footing of the (wet) pavement, and then to the “safety” of the awning, only to find the building it’s attached to is just an empty shell, and not a real “destination.” This “having to cross questionable or unstable ground in the foreground to get to the heart of the work” is present in many of Rod Penner’s works. It takes the eye on a journey, and makes it work to get to the core of the composition.

This section is about 3 inches tall by 6 inches wide in the Painting, shown here larger than actual size (once you click on it). Even the wear and tear on the sign’s lettering is brilliantly rendered.

Whatever struggle took place here, even the struggle of day to day business survival is over, and all is quiet in the building. In all it’s brilliantly rendered dilapidated glory, it’s still standing. Though it says “San Saba” on it, if you took the lettering off (but please don’t) this is another scene that can be seen in any state in the USA. It’s a part of the lifecycle of a business- the part where one has ended and a new one may begin. In that sense, it could also stand for life & death. It’s a tombstone for the business that was once here, and all the memories and history that went with it. It’s also a space where something new can begin. It’s real and surreal, intimate and repelling, liquid, solid and air, a place that it wouldn’t seem could possibly exist, somehow, except for that sign- “San Saba Butane” anchors the scene to earthen reality. I wondered about that sign at first, in my first Post, then thought- “No. It’s probably a real name. No one could make that up, right?”

One look at “San Saba Butane” in comparison to how it appears on the extreme left of “View of San Saba” and you realize that there’s no building behind it now! The Artist, himself, pointed this out to me. The whole right side of “San Saba Butane” shows a different view than what’s behind it in “View of San Saba.”

Detail of the right side of “San Saba Butane”

Detail of the left side of “View of San Saba”

Mr. Penner said, “In San Saba Butane, I removed the building you see in View of San Saba. The area right of the station needed to be opened up some… too claustrophobic… in order to allow the eye more room to wander. The stop sign and hydrant are the same ones you see in “View of San Saba.” That sound you heard was a hammer putting the final nail in the coffin of “photorealism” in regards to the work of Rod Penner.

Well? If this is a real place? I don’t care one bit what it “really” looks like. I don’t want to know. Well, I do know this- As much as I dislike qualitatively comparing creative work. I can’t put it any other way- I can’t think of a better Painting I’ve seen in the past year than “San Saba Butane.”

The next one is right up there, too.

“Commie’s Tacos,” 5 x 7 1/2 inches.

“Why did we stop here?,” I can hear someone in the backseat saying.

After all, we’re stopped in the middle of the road. “The light’s red up ahead,” might be one reply. “Not much to see here,” might be the new complaint. Hmmm…..The longer I look at this, the more I disagree.

First, there’s the skill involved in depicting this in all of 5 by 7 1/2 inches of canvas.

The same Painting, “Commie’s Taco’s,” seen from only 6 feet away.

When I looked closely at this one, I marveled at the detail on the two buildings to the left of center. The more I looked at this, the more I see. Every last clapboard is perfectly rendered, but all of it has character. Check out the bands on the back of the Stop sign, and on and on…

Detail of about 2 and 1/2 inches of the left side seen with a zoom lens.

To the right is a tan building, with a Spanish Tile roof, which would be fitting for a business with the name of Commie’s Tacos, the work’s name-sake, which is painted at an angle, and cut off making me wonder if Commie would ever want to buy this work and display it in his/her’s fine establishment, since it’s not even showing the whole restaurant. In fact, we wouldn’t know what the name of it was if it wasn’t the work’s title!

Commie’s, itself, in about 2 inches, with incredibly detailed concrete.

Then, I stared straight ahead, down that beckoning road you see in the first photo, which is what the composition seems to want. The looming street seems a bit more uneven, a bit rougher, than the fairly level ground we’re on now, judging from the masterfully rendered pavement.

Detail of about 4 inches of the foreground. Mr. Penner frequently puts pavement right in the front of his work, which is both daring and serves to set the stage. It’s a stage so well executed it looks real, and used. Notice the wide variety of surfaces.

We’ll pass trash cans, Yield signs and the ever present telephone poles. Further on, past the white house, it’s hard to say what we’ll encounter, well, before that vehicle with it’s headlights on. If we were standing on either of those corners, maybe we’d think that vehicle was coming for us. But, in the middle of the intersection? All bets are off. It’s hard to tell if Commie’s is even open for business. As in every work here, no one else is around.

As a result? There are none of the distractions people in a painting bring. None of the drama. Uh oh. Speaking of drama…

On the Fence, #6- Crow-No-Lisa”

Same with Commie’s. It’s painted at an angle and chopped off which serves to reduce it’s power and importance. The import, seems to me, to be in the feeling of place- of being here, now. Imagine for a moment what it must feel like to be a new resident to this street, seeing it for the first time, (as most viewers of this work are), and seeing the place you’ll now call home? What would living here be like? The residents are already connected to each other by wires, but you’re not. Would you be welcome? There’s rain on the ground, as there is in a number of these works, but the skies seem to be clearing. Keywords- seem to be. It looks to be a very typical street in a small town in Texas, in or near San Saba, but it could be almost anywhere. This scene could be in just about any one of the 49 states not named Hawaii.

Robert Frost talked about taking the road less traveled, “and that made all the difference.” What would he make of this road? Would he take it? Situated here, as we are, the answer isn’t clear, but if we are going down that side street, we’re in the wrong lane of traffic. Unless, we’re across the street at the other corner, waiting at a Stop sign there. Or, maybe it’s a scene seen in passing, or while stuck at a light to the left or right. One of those things we see for a minute, just long enough to wonder what’s down there? What it’s like down that street?

Seen from a normal distance, “Commie’s Tacos,” in it’s double frame.

Or? You could consider it a mediation on what once was on the corner, perhaps a house you grew up, that’s now gone. The level of detail enhances the “realism” of the work, and so, enhances the viewer’s ability to “experience” whatever he or she thinks and feels when they see it. Beyond the date the painting was done, we don’t know when this scene takes place (as we don’t in any of the works on view). It could be today, last year or 30 years ago. As such, it, and all the works here, are “portraits” of a place that’s beyond time and place. A place frozen in time that portrays an equally frozen moment that, the closer you look at it, you see “more” in. It raises more and more questions, or maybe even reminds you of a place and time, and brings back it’s feelings. Seeing this on the wall at Ameringer, in it’s interesting double frame, it’s a portal into a distant place that somehow doesn’t feel all that far away. A place somehow “known.”

Ameringer McEnery Yohe, 525 West 22nd Street, NYC, seen during the run of the show, appropriately, from the middle of the street, with wet pavement, under “Penner-esque” skies, that I hear came all the way from Texas.

I don’t know how the 2,783 residents of San Saba (in 2014) feel about these paintings, if they’ve seen them. More than likely, they prefer Mr. Penner paint other locations in their fine community. As someone who’s never been to Texas, when I look at them, as I’ve said, except for a sign here or there, I see places that could exist elsewhere. So, while they’re based on actual places in and around San Saba, as Mr. Penner said, they strike me as much as depicting America- places and things that could be seen anywhere in the country. I’m sure San Saba is a very different place than NYC is in a lot of ways. When I look at these Paintings? Not entirely different.

(My subsequent Q&A with Rod Penner is hereMy experience at this show’s opening and my initial impressions of it are here.)

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Here Comes The Sun,” by George Harrison from “Abbey Road” by The Beatles.

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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1.  Old Mother Pecan, one of the most unique trees in the world (I love trees), is still standing, too (thought not seen), not all that far away, 200 years later! Important for a place that calls itself the “Pecan capital of the world.”